“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.
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 atLibyaTrueStory.com,” 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