GUARDIAN: Social media influences documentary-makers

Social media have had a truly revolutionary effect, enabling film-makers and citizens to disseminate their own stories


Egyptians use their mobile phone to record celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square


With built-in video cameras now the norm for mobile phones, anyone can be a film-maker – a fact proven by the role social content played in TV news coverage of the recent uprisings in the Middle East. As the dust settles, however, social media is influencing documentary-makers, too.



“Social media is an enabler – allowing people to communicate in states where repressive regimes have restricted them from doing so,” says David Alamouti, a film-maker and development director of inSight Education, a not-for-profit organisation championing diversity in production. “Now, however, it is also re-writing the conventions of documentary – fuelling the development of a new style as surely as the advent of TV re-shaped the documentary film-making that existed before.”


At one level the power of social media is about access – enabling ordinary individuals to tell and disseminate their own stories as well as traditional documentary-makers. “Social media has given us unprecedented access to individuals eager to tell their stories,” says Brandon Litman, executive producer of One Day on Earth, a participatory documentary using the internet to amass footage from around the globe.

Connecting directly


The One Day on Earth project, where a variety of amateur and professional videographers shot footage during the 24-hour period of 10 October 2010, has since evolved into an online community of film-makers with plans to document important, global social issues moving forward. A project currently in production called Libya: True Story, is a documentary following a handful of activists’ struggle to declare independence from the Gaddafi regime. “Social media also allows a film-maker to offer those interested to get closer to a story as it unfolds over time by connecting directly with those involved – something we are now doing with the social community we are building online,” Litman adds. “Though what we are making is a traditional documentary in that it will follow a linear storyline, the project will also involve content that sits online within a social community so the documentary can be organic and interactive, too.”


Social media also enables a different approach to story-telling. “The internet has allowed a new form of documentary to emerge – a form involving multiple narratives and array of different types of content spread across different platforms,” says Alamouti. “Rather than allowing the audience to sit back and listen it can enable them to lean forward to navigate their own way around a particular subject.”


The emergence of new formats – such as cross-platform documentary “projects” such as #18DaysInEgypt – could redefine the traditional role of documentary-maker and they could also help solve some of the pitfalls of using social media to gather footage. Alamouti says that verification of images is crucial but he says that social media and online communities can also play a role in authenticating content as part of the production process. And besides, he adds, the challenges social media content presents the film-maker are outweighed by its strengths. “True, the next generation of media users will need to be more savvy because of the volume of content readily available and variety of sources from which it will originate,” he says. “But the internet is all about pluralism and democracy. And in a democracy people need to be both informed and free to make up their own mind.” This article was produced in association with Crossover Labs and Sheffield Doc/Fest

#18DaysInEgypt: next-generation documentary


#18DaysInEgypt is an example of next-generation documentary-making – incorporating social media content created by those actually involved in an event and straddling multiple platforms.


“The idea came as I was following the events in Tahrir Square in February via Al Jazeera, YouTube and Twitter,” explains journalist and documentary-maker Jigar Mehta, co-creator of the project. “So many of the people present were holding a recording device to document what was going on and mark their own, personal involvement. A staggering amount of material was created. But what was lacking was some way of curating it.”


#18DaysInEgypt is the result: an evolving, crowd-sourced, cross-platform documentary set up by Mehta; Yasmin Elayat, a New York-based interaction designer and software developer; and Alaa Al Dajani, a documentary-maker born and raised in Egypt.


At its heart is an online portal to which contributors send links on their tweets, as well as media content on other platforms, SMS text, MMS photos and videos, too. “Phase one involved asking those who took part in the Egyptian uprising to tag their media or work with us to upload their media,” Mehta says.


All social content contributed is being made available online via the #18DaysInEgypt website as soon as it is submitted to help authenticate it.


“It’s a form of crowd-editing that we hope will help verify material before we select from it to produce the documentary film,” he explains.


Phase two is all about presenting the content assembled in a variety of ways across different platforms. Over the coming months, for example, the team will produce a documentary film to mark the uprising’s first anniversary. This will be shaped by grassroots researchers recruited to explore in greater depth selected contributors’ first-hand accounts. Also in development is a location-based app based around geo-tagged content for users on the ground to find out what happened where. In addition, Mehta is putting together what he describes somewhat cryptically as “an interactive ‘physical space’ experience”. Mehta concludes: “It’s a new approach to documentary and one that can only evolve with technologies moving forwards.”


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