9 Reasons Why Documentary Filmmakers Are Heroes

Have you watched any documentaries lately? Have any of them changed your life or at least changed your perception?

Documentaries that come to mind for me include “An Inconvenient Truth”, “Food Inc” and “Why We Fight”. These films literally impacted my behavior, habits or shifted my world view. The explosion of fruits and vegetables in my kitchen in the hours and days after watching “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” is a testament to the power of documentaries!

In recent years, documentaries have skyrocketed in popularity and serve as a vital tool to both educate and inspire. If done well, they have the power to transform, move, and change the world.

Documentary filmmakers are pioneers going places that the average person would not go and doing things the average person would not do, sometimes even putting themselves in danger for us, the viewers. Here are some of the reasons these modern-day documentary filmmakers have earned the title “hero”.

Documentary Filmmakers

9 Surprising Reasons Why Documentary Filmmakers Are Heroes

1. So much time, so little glory – Making a documentary takes massive amounts of time and energy. Since most documentaries don’t make a profit, documentary filmmakers often pour their heart into a project never to reap any financial benefit.

2. Shining a light in dark places – Sometimes life can be ugly. And as long as ugliness is hidden from view, perpetrators can continue unchallenged. But if suddenly a bright light shines down on these heinous acts, the good people of this world can see it, examine it and hopefully do something to fix it. “The Cove” is a perfect example. The documentary filmmakers exposed the systematic slaughter of innocent dolphins in Japan which caused an outcry and reexamination of Japan’s fishing industry practices.

3. Dissipating hatred – Morgan Spurlock (“SuperSize Me”) became my hero with his “30 Days” TV Series on FX. He took people out of their comfort zone and put them into unfamiliar situations that conflict with their “upbringing, beliefs, religion or profession”. For example, a Christian living as a Muslim; a gun control advocate in the home of gun enthusiasts; a man opposed to illegal immigration sharing a home with Mexican immigrants. Would we have as much hatred or war in this world if we simply took the time to understand each other just a bit better?

4. Healing wounds – I would like to think that my documentary “Briars in the Cotton Patch” had a part in healing my local community after years of hatred and misunderstanding over events that took place in a small Georgia community in the 1950s. There was so much bitterness and shame from those days that I had trouble getting people to discuss the events 40 years later! More than 600 people attended the local film premiere and you could hear a pin drop in some sections during the film. It was a time in history that many did not want to discuss or remember, but it was a chance to revisit those painful memories, reflect and allow old wounds to heal. Myself included.

5. Exposing war and violence – There are many examples of documentary filmmakers (and journalists) risking their lives to expose a wrongdoing or dangerous event. For example filmmaker Shaul Schwarz faced numerous life threatening situations while documenting the Mexican drug culture for the documentary NARCO CULTURA. Pamela Yates exposed atrocities against the indigenous Mayans in Guatemala for the documentary “When The Mountains Tremble”. Tragically, documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who co-directed Academy nominated “Restrepo”, was killed in 2011 while covering the Lybian Civil War. These documentary filmmakers risk their lives to expose the horrors of war, systemic violence, corporate/government corruption, massive social upheavals and human rights injustices.

6. Protecting the innocent and giving a voice to the voiceless – This is perhaps the most noble of all the genres of documentary filmmaking: speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves; giving a voice to the most vulnerable in our society including children, the elderly, animals, the environment, the poor and disabled. The documentary “Not My Life” goes undercover to expose child trafficking and slavery. The BBC documentary ”Undercover Care: The Abuse Exposed” documents shocking abuses of mentally disabled adults in a care home. The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” casts a critical eye on the questionable treatment of Orcas in captivity.

7. Inspiring Innovation – By putting a spotlight on heroes such as social entrepreneurs and scientists who are dedicating their lives to improving the human condition, it serves as inspiration to us all to do more and be better. “The Stories of Change” documentary series from the Sundance Institute is one shining example. Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s “A Total Disruption” web series – soon to be documentary – is a fascinating exploration of innovators and entrepreneurs using cutting-edge technology to transform our lives.

8. Delighting us with unique characters, stories and fresh perspectives – The human experience is vast and each of us has a unique story that reveals an element of truth about life on planet earth and the universe around us. So many lovely documentaries come rushing to mind such as “I Am”, “Baraka”, “Waiting For Sugar Man”, “Waste Land” and “Exit Through The Gift Shop”.

9. Exploring solutions to big problems – Climate change, poverty, education, campaign finance laws, corrupt governments, nuclear war, health care, domestic abuse… you name it, these difficult issues need the spotlight. And these are not easy issues to tackle as a filmmaker. It takes guts and courage to jump in and try to make sense of it all and create a story that will not only engage and entertain, but also inspire action. Filmmaking, GOOD filmmaking, is hard. (The talented documentary filmmakers make it look easy).

Documentary filmmakers Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko”) and Davis Guggenheim (“Waiting For Superman”) are great examples in this area. Right now I am inspired by John Wellington Ennis and his “Pay2Play” documentary tackling the massive issue of campaign reform.

Opportunities To Help Documentary Filmmakers

Every year, 250,000+ people come to my documentary blog seeking guidance, tools and inspiration on how to make a documentary. One of the biggest challenges filmmakers face is finding funding. The fundraising process is enough to deter the most passionate and talented fimmakers from telling these important stories.

Documentary ToolsIn the old days of filmmaking, the only way documentary filmmakers could get funding was through the excruciating grant writing system, pitching their ideas to a competitive broadcasting market or hoping for angel investors. Today, we are blessed with the “crowd funding” system where filmmakers can take their ideas directly to their audience. It’s a chance for each of us to get in on the ground floor and partner with filmmakers to get these important stories told.

So do the world a favor. Right now, click over to one of the crowd funding platforms like IndieGoGo.com or KickStarter.com and browse the documentary projects. Pick one that resonates with you and make a donation. Even $1 helps!

There are too many documentary filmmakers to list them all in this article. What documentaries have changed your life? Who are YOUR documentary heroes?

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Faith Fuller is the founder and publisher of Desktop-Documentaries.com, an online resource helping filmmakers bring their dream documentary to life. Faith has been making films/videos/documentaries for 20+ years and won a regional Emmy and CINE for her PBS documentary “Briars in the Cotton Patch”. She loves inspiring filmmakers to reach their highest potential. To connect with Faith and learn the ins and outs of making a documentary, visit: www.desktop-documentaries.com

Tiffany Shlain Talks Cloud Filmmaking

Tiffany Shlain was honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” She is a filmmaker, founder of the Webby Awards, and co-founder of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. Her last four films premiered at Sundance, including her 2011 feature documentary, Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology, which was selected by the US State Department as one of the films to represent America around the world for The 2012 American Film Showcase.

Tiffany Shlain stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share ideas on marketing, distribution and Cloud Filmmaking.

Jason Brubaker
Hi Tiffany. It is great to chat with you and get your perspective on filmmaking. For any reader who doesn’t know you – Why don’t you give us a little bit of background about yourself? How did you get started as a filmmaker?

Tiffany Shlain
Sure. Let’s see, I grew up watching movies. Not just watching them but then discussing them and kind of taking them apart and really having a family discussion about the movie.

Jason Brubaker
And this is where you gained inspiration?

Tiffany Shlain
I never thought I could be a filmmaker.  I was supposed to be a doctor. My father is a surgeon and all three children were going to be doctors. I was given the book The Making Of a Woman Surgeon three times. [Laughs]

Jason Brubaker
But you didn’t get the hint. How did you make the transition from surgeon to filmmaker?

Tiffany Shlain
Well I went to UC Berkeley and I took a History Of Film class and just kind of fell in love with how much film can change culture and ideas. During that time, I learned how to make movies by cutting together old movies on a flatbed at the Student Planning department.

Jason Brubaker
Is that when you got the idea to rewrite Beat poetry and couple that with stock footage?

Tiffany Shlain
It is interesting because definitely, my style was formed during those early days. I couldn’t afford to get in Film school. So I ended up going to a summer program at NYU. And if you look at my films, they are very much created from this very collage style. I mean we make original animation and use it through our movies but we hardly shoot anything.

[Here is an example –  Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” – A movie directed by Tiffany Shlain, written by Tiffany Shlain and Ken Goldberg]

Jason Brubaker
What happened after you graduated Berkeley?

Tiffany Shlain
When I graduated from Berkeley, I tried to make a feature right out of College. When I think about it now, I was just so young and naïve. I kept running out of money. [Laughs]

Jason Brubaker
What was your first feature about?

Tiffany Shlain
It was called Zoli’s Brain and I was attempting to… This was way before Being John Malkovich came out. But it was a lot of the same concept. It is like a magic surrealist film of what it would look like to be inside a creative person’s mind who’s having a creative block. We shot at Alcatraz, for brain cells… Imprisoned thoughts are locked up and there are critical thought editing rooms where people edit out your thoughts.

Jason Brubaker
It sounds like a very ambitious project.

Tiffany Shlain
I kept running out of money on it and going into debt… And during my third time running out of money and going into debt, I started working on a CD Rom project. During that time, someone came over and said, “You have to see this thing called the web.”

Jason Brubaker
So that was your introduction to the Internet?

Tiffany Shlain
I was like, this is gonna change the world. It’s going to change the way you tell stories, the way you connect. Then I was given the opportunity to establish the Webby Awards and I really kind of put my thoughts into that. I was going to treat the Webby Awards like my art project. I planned to honor the best of the web in a very edgy way.

Jason Brubaker
Can you talk about that a little bit more? And can you explain what the Webby Awards is?

Tiffany Shlain
The Webby Awards honors the best websites. I founded it and ran it for nearly a decade.  It still happens in New York. Websites were new and no one knew what they were. I was given the opportunity to totally create the Webby Awards from the ground up and at the time the publishers had no budget. I was like: “I know how to do things for no budget, I’m an independent filmmaker.” [Laughs]

Jason Brubaker
I know what you mean. I think indie filmmaking is a great prerequisite for bootstrapping any business. [Laughs]

Tiffany Shlain
Exactly. So I brought on sponsors and we did a really edgy show that was kinda very different from what’s out there in tech world. We hit just as the Internet exploded. We rode the wave the whole time and got to honor people doing really edgy work. These were the pioneers in the industry. I got to make short films that would kind of introduce each show, which really allowed me to practice my craft.

Jason Brubaker
Is that how you went from the Webby Awards back to filmmaking?

Tiffany Shlain
The Webby Awards took a massive amount of time and lot of work. It was like 80-90 hours a week. And my husband and I really wanted a child. I had been making all these short films for the Webbys… Then George Bush got into office and the first thing he did was to take away the funding for reproductive rights.

Jason Brubaker
I remember that.

Tiffany Shlain
That really pissed me off and so I was like: “I’m going to make a short funny film about Reproductive Rights that will engage my generation.” That was around 2002 and that was kind of my first film outside of Webby Awards in years. And the film got in to Sundance and did really well.

Jason Brubaker
So you saw the power in making movies about topics you are passionate about.

Tiffany Shlain
I really saw the power of making films about ideas and important issues in our society combined with the power of the web. Having links and tools proved to me how effective that could be. It was also less time consuming. That film took me four months and was playing in all of these places all over the country without me. And that was when the light bulb went off.  The Webby Awards required massive energy and time from me. And it was just a one-night experience.

Jason Brubaker
But a movie can sort of have a life on it’s own, independent of the filmmaker.

Tiffany Shlain
And with this film, it still shows to this day. I really saw the ability of putting in creative energy into something and having it kind of live without you. That was the moment I was like, I want to go back to filmmaking full time. I want to make films about important issues, combined with the web.

Jason Brubaker
Sounds like an incredibly busy time! What did you do next?

Tiffany Shlain
Next I made a film called The Tribe which got into Sundance sometime in 2006. And that film explored American Jewish identity to the history of Barbie doll.

Jason Brubaker
This is when you started adding “discussion kits” as part of the experience?

Tiffany Shlain
That film was really fun because we spent a lot of our budget and energy on a discussion kit that went with it. At that time, it was the first film that really had something like that.

Jason Brubaker
What was in the kit?

Tiffany Shlain
The movie had a book that went with it and conversation cards. We created the kit as we were making the film. We raised just as much money for this, as part of outreach of the film. Something like this hadn’t really been done for independent films. Hollywood has always had major marketing budgets. But at the time in 2005, most independent filmmakers were spending all their money on production and had nothing planned for marketing or distribution.

Jason Brubaker
For the indie filmmaker, it’s now essential to plan a marketing and distribution strategy.

Tiffany Shlain
We spent a lot of time on outreach and this film had a really wonderful life at the festival.

Jason Brubaker
Where can we find the movie?

Tiffany Shlain
The movie is an 18-minute short, so not a feature. And it was released on iTunes about a year after at Sundance. And it became first documentary to be number one on iTunes. I think that was really a testament to social media. Facebook existed at that point and we did a lot of experiments, you know, with our Facebook community.

Jason Brubaker
What kind of things did you do?

Tiffany Shlain
Well a lot of experiments, but all focused on engagement.  It was early, so as a pioneer, we really worked to engage our Facebook community in new ways. I think that’s why we were able to get ahead of Disney and Pixar on iTunes. It’s a little documentary and we were so excited about it. It was like it was David and Goliath.

Jason Brubaker
I was going to say that kind of shifted the way that you think about your audience from a traditional strategy versus what you can now do with the Internet.

Tiffany Shlain
Yeah I think that really made me want to experiment even more. And so there was the next film which was Connected. Social Media was so integrated to our plans from the get go. You know, our goal with Connected was to trigger what the conversation was about, what it means to be connected in the 21st century.

Connected poster

Jason Brubaker
Were you able to gain traction?

Tiffany Shlain
So it’s been a really exciting evolution. It’s such an active Facebook page now. It’s like 16,000 people from all over the world that are posting and linking, and communicating everyday and we just did a post on Friday and it got 17000 likes and tons of discussions which was more exciting to us! Connected premiered on Sundance in 2011 and we did another discussion kit spending even more time on it.

Jason Brubaker
What did you include for Connected?

Tiffany Shlain
Yeah. So for Connected, we have conversation cards, which is the main idea pulled from the film that triggered the discussion. They’re like product experiment or probes or ideas. Then we have a book that goes deeper into all the issues they explored and then we have a curriculum which we have ready for the time of launch.

Jason Brubaker
How do you distribute those kits?

Tiffany Shlain
Well, a lot of people come to us after seeing the film but also, over 200 universities all over the world are using Connected right now. It’s a combination of some knowing my previous work and some seeing Connected all sorts of different ways.

Jason Brubaker
Was it always part of your plan to get to get into the universities with the educational curriculum?

Tiffany Shlain
Yeah, it was part of our plan for sure. I mean with all of our films, the goal is to trigger conversations about important issues of our day in new ways. So we always say the film is the appetizer and the discussion you have afterwards is the main course and we’re going to provide all these different tools for the discussion. You’ve got the film, the cards, the book, the page, the website. All these are different entry points.

Jason Brubaker
I love your marketing strategy as well as the discussion kits.

Tiffany Shlain
Connected explores what is the world going to be like when everyone’s online. What are we going to do with that? What’s the good and what’s the bad and the potential of that? And so we started the new film series right after Connected that really put a lot of ideas from Connected into action. The last Line of Connected is ‘For centuries we’ve been declaring independence. Perhaps its time to declare inter-dependance’.

Jason Brubaker
What are you working on now?

Tiffany Shlain
So the first film in our new film series are these collaborative films we’re making. We rewrote ‘The Declaration of Independence’ as a ‘Declaration of Interdependence,’ and posted it on the Internet. We invited people to read it and it was total experiment and we got a grant to do these films. We had entries from all over the world. It was so exciting and Moby did the music for it. We edited it together and made this 4 minute film. As a filmmaker it’s like the most exciting way I’ve ever made a film before. People film themselves and send it to me and you have an enormous amount of authenticity that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to capture. It’s the fact that they’re just filming themselves.

Jason Brubaker
It is what you call Cloud Filmmaking?

Tiffany Shlain
Yes. And it works so well and we’re like “Oh my God, this is so exciting!” We made our next film called Engaged and then we wrote a Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto based on the principles. So now we make the film from the cloud. We edited it together into a movie. And people volunteered to translate the Declaration of the Interdependence into 66 languages, which was so exciting for us.

[Here is The Declaration of the Interdependence ]

Jason Brubaker
Absolutely.

Tiffany Shlain
The last part of what we call Cloud Filmmaking is this. We make free customized version to non-profits for all over the world. So many non-profits do such important work but they don’t have good films to help their effort. So the concept is that we can easily customize the movies for any non-profit. In the end, it would look like their movie. It has their logo, URL and their call to action. If you think back to earlier in my career when I made that film on reproductive rights, that was just for one organization.

Jason Brubaker
Right. Sounds like an interesting model for extending your message.

Tiffany Shlain
In this film we were able to make a hundred customized films for non-profits for free. The next film we’ve released called Engaged is another Cloud film. We had 200 non-profits approach us in just 2 weeks!

Jason Brubaker
That’s amazing.

Tiffany Shlain
Totally. So basically in the last year we have been able to make 300 free movies from non-profits all over the world. And then the latest film in the series is called Brain Power from Neurons to Networks and was just released that one a couple of weeks ago. And the movie looks at the parallel between children brains and the global brand of the Internet.

Jason Brubaker
How does the Ted book play into your strategy?

Tiffany Shlain
The Ted conference approached me to do a book and I was like :“Well, I’m just finishing this film and we have finalized script called Brain Power. What if I put all the research that my co-writer and I did for this script into it and conceptualize this 10 minute script into a book?”

Jason Brubaker
And so you were able to release the book?

Tiffany Shlain
On the day of our film premiere we also released at Ted book and then we’re going to be doing a Cloud Filmmaking Hackathon sometime in January. We’re bringing together encoders and filmmakers to come out, really brainstorm on how we could push the film further.

Jason Brubaker
How do you monetize cloud films?

Tiffany Shlain
Connected is doing very well. We sell educational kits and we just started doing limited edition DVD and home discussion kits.  And that’s been great. By the way, people can buy Connected on DVD and also grab the discussion kit. Connected has investors and we are sending them their first check.

Jason Brubaker
So you have investors for Connected?

Tiffany Shlain
Yeah, we have investors for Connected and have worked really hard to earn the investors’ money back. I have a wonderful team that I’ve worked with for years.

Jason Brubaker
Everything you’ve described sounds like an exciting but very different distribution model. Is there an educational distributor that you work with or does your team manage everything?

Tiffany Shlain
We do that ourselves. A lot of people wanted to distribute our films. We were also in theaters. Connected had theatrical last year.

Jason Brubaker
Were you able to leverage theatrical to extend your footprint?

Tiffany Shlain
We were in 11 cities and that certainly you know, those kind of things amplify the reach for sure. We had theatrical, we have a distributor for. So In February we will be on VOD and Digital download with New Video as our distributor. And then at Sundance, we’re doing Artist Direct, Digital, like iTunes and all, accredited to Sundance. So VOD, and it will be on DVD release March 12 wide, and then New Video will take it very wide. So right now we’re just selling for the people in our community and people that know our work.

Jason Brubaker
What are your plans for expanding beyond North America and the audience you have already sourced?

Tiffany Shlain
With Connected, it was sold to 5 countries and is playing on television in Sweden, Canada, Australia and Israel. We have a distributor for that. So we are kind of a hybrid where do a lot of stuff ourselves. But we also work with partners that have great  distribution channels. But with educational, we definitely do ourselves.

Jason Brubaker
When you’re in other territories, do they circle back and also get discussion kits in different languages?

Tiffany Shlain
Sometimes we do. Yeah we sold in a lot of universities and a to a lot of people as well.

Jason Brubaker
I am fascinated with some of these ways that you engage your audience and get your movie and discussion kits into the world. Can you provide an overview of how your model works and maybe some marketing tips for filmmakers.

Tiffany Shlain
I think filmmakers need to devote as much creative energy on how their films get out to the world as actually producing the film.

Jason Brubaker
Agreed. Whenever I give talks, I’m amazed at how many filmmakers at still waiting for someone else to do all the marketing stuff.

Tiffany Shlain
People say, “I’m just a filmmaker.” But in this world, where there are so many different ways to engage people. And there’s so many free tools out there. It saddens me how few filmmakers actually experiment. There’s always new tools. The filmmaker really has to make a marketing plan from the beginning.

Jason Brubaker
And then just work the plan. You may try something that’s out of your plan and maybe that will work and some other things won’t work?

Tiffany Shlain
Exactly. And you’ll just build that in – build failure into it. Experiment because a lot of things will work.

Jason Brubaker
Thank you for stopping by Filmmaking Stuff!

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Tiffany is currently working on the film series Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change, 16 short films that look at what connects us as humans employing a new way of making films with people all over the web she calls Cloud Filmmaking. She published “The Cloud Filmmaking Manifesto” at The Tribeca Film Festival where she received a 2012 Disruptive Innovation Award for her film work. Tiffany is a Henry Crown Fellow at The Aspen Institute, a member of the advisory board for MIT-IBM Network Science Research Center, The Institute for the Future and she was invited to advise Secretary State Hillary Clinton about the internet and technology. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and children.

Reach out to Tiffany Shlain:

  1. Connect the movie on FaceBook
  2. Brain Power Ted Book:
  3. Connected The Film, Official Site
  4. Connect with Tiffany on Twitter: @tiffanyshlain
  5. Tiffany’s Website.

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