AFI Docs

FRONTLINE executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath delivers the keynote address at AFI Docs.

This article was original published on Documentary.org (Documentary magazine) by the International Documentary Association. 

“Why isn’t FRONTLINE more like Minecraft?”

In her keynote address to the AFI DOCS Filmmaker ConferenceFRONTLINE executive producer Raney Aronson-Rath relayed her 9-year-old son’s question posed at an MIT Open Docs Media Lab event. (For the uninitiated, Minecraft, the virtual reality creation game, is the hottest activity around for the most native of digital-natives, the pre-tween iPad generation.) Aronson-Rath spoke of being inspired at her week-long immersion into nonlinear storytelling ideation at MIT, and the importance of paying attention to the Minecraft question—and a Minecraft-playing audience—as the future of documentary storytelling continues to unfold.

For the filmmakers, strategists, industry professionals and film students in attendance at this year’s Conference (June 18-19), the future of documentary was a central theme, along with risk-taking in the blurred lines between documentary storytelling and investigative journalism. The Washington, DC-based conference, presented in partnership with IDA, also focused on its own native themes: the deep impact and connection between documentaries and public policy, legislation and public affairs.

AFI DOCS’ director, Michael Lumpkin, kicked off the conference with his introduction of Aronson-Rath, newly promoted to FRONTLINE’s executive producer role after several years as in the deputy spot. Aronson-Rath, now responsible for long- and short-form programming and multi-platform growth, spoke about her strong commitment to digital-native projects while continuing to embrace the tenets of FRONTLINE’s legacy long-form work.

“A big question that came up at the PBS conference this year was, ‘What is FRONTLINE’s future?’” Aronson-Rath related. “There’s no question documentary and investigative journalism has a strong future. The common denominator is that we will continue to focus on strong journalism and strong storytelling, and the great challenge is how we will do that across platforms. Documentary is an enduring form, and it’s remarkable to see how enduring it is, particularly on digital platforms.”

Evidence of FRONTLINE’s continued relevance is seen in its upcoming season slate, which includes investigations into transgender identity, the drug war, immigration and ISIS. But, as Aronson-Rath noted, developing digital-native FRONTLINE content is not about repurposing clips from broadcast to TV. The key is to think differently in order to reach digital-native audiences who are unlikely to discover FRONTLINE on broadcast. She cited FRONTLINE’s new YouTube channel, which focuses on developing fully-realized short-form stories. From the upcoming ISIS long-form program, for example, the FRONTLINE team produced a four-minute short-form story, Life in Baghdad, which includes simple reporter narration against footage about everyday life amidst the turmoil of conflict. Aronson-Rath noted the “incredible” interest and response from the online audience—including people finding FRONTLINE for the first time.

“When we started our YouTube channel, we learned we didn’t really know how to do short-form storytelling,” Aronson-Rath recalled. “We learned we had to create little stories for this space, and it’s not enough to just take excerpts out of a longer film; we heard in minutes from the YouTube audiences that they want ‘FRONTLINE on YouTube,’ not promotion—and not clips.”

Producing short-form content is not simply a strategy to keep up with the evolution of the digital era, she noted. But it’s crucial to help younger audiences discover and demand high-quality investigative journalism and innovative documentary storytelling. And it’s an intentional content-creation strategy, not a content-repurposing one.

“Here’s my central thesis: The digital future we keep talking about is right now; the renaissance is happening right now,” Aronson-Rath asserted. “The new generation will expect us to work in new forms. Long-form linear storytelling will always endure, but now we have a new expectation that storytelling is interactive and immersive.”

The keynote was followed by the first panel discussion of the day: “The Filmmaker as Journalist—Managing Risk in Investigative Documentary Work,” sponsored by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Moderator Carrie Lozano, former Al Jazeera America executive documentary producer, joined Aronson-Rath and documentary directors/producers Bernardo Ruiz (Kingdom of Shadows) and Giovanna Chesler (Out in the Night), also associate professor at George Mason University, along with First Amendment attorney Jay Ward Brown of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP.

Lozano acknowledged the special risks for independent documentary producers, who often don’t have the same legal, financial and security protections that legacy-brand investigative journalism operations have. Aside from a deeper philosophical conversation about whether—and which— independent documentary filmmakers consider themselves investigative journalists, the process of gaining access and working in challenging environments can be the same, the panelists noted.

“As independent producers, you’re basically going it alone, without in-house counsel, a budget, and security protocols that are different when you’re on staff somewhere,” said Lozano.

Chesler pointed out the importance of ethics in the broader conversation about journalistic practices in documentary. She also observed, “There’s a strange middle ground that hasn’t settled out between documentary—as artists—and journalists.” She discussed her producer role in Out in the Night, which included security risks in subject interviews and the challenges—and imperatives—of fact-checking and exercising FOIA rights to access court proceedings and other information.

Out in the Night

From Blair Dorosh-Walther’s’ ‘Out in the Night’ (Prods: Giovanni Chesler, Mridu Chandra, Yoruba Richen). Courtesy of POV

“As an independent filmmaker, having access to an attorney even from the beginning is really crucial,” Chesler maintained. “And understanding fair use is a tool of empowerment.” Chesler also noted that understanding rights to information is vital in documentary storytelling.

Ruiz identified himself as a documentary filmmaker who works “in a journalistic mode.” He also noted that work flow may be similar in some cases, but he believes that “documentary has been a much more diverse realm in terms of what stories are represented, which people are able to actually tell the stories. We’re filling a gap in reporting and often bringing new types of stories and makers to the system.”

From Aronson-Rath’s perspective, both investigative journalists and independent documentary filmmakers investigating corporate accountability and other sensitive topics are well advised to “watch every single step and be as clean as you possibly can so you don’t experience an inadvertent attack on your motives or personal intent.” Documenting truth is valuable both for storytelling and mitigating risk.

Brown, the attorney, said risks in producing documentaries usually come down to two words: “the what” and “the where”—or, the topic sensitivity and filmmaker intentions, and filming location. “Of course, documentarians can be journalists and vice versa. But the legal protections that apply to journalists certainly apply to documentary filmmakers,” he said.

Brown and the panelists pointed out that the new Center for Media & Social Impactreport, Dangerous Documentaries, written by Pat Aufderheide, includes a list of legal and other risk-management resources available to documentary filmmakers.

The next panel focused on the intersection of Web and storytelling, beginning with a deep dive into NPR’s award-winning digital and audio project, Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt. The panel, “Going Native: Producing Documentary for the Web and the Innovative Work of NPR Visuals,” included Wes Lindamood, senior interaction designer for NPR; moderator Claire O’Neill, NPR producer/editor; and Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, directors/producers/writers of Welcome to Leith.

Lindamood described Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt as a digital project that aimed to produce the same kind of “driveway moments” that NPR’s audio storytelling does—storytelling so riveting, he explained, that people are unable to leave their cars until they hear the end. But digital development for a Web documentary works alongside the audio and video reporting, not separately or sequentially—and that’s the key element. Spotlighting the inherent benefits of the Web—interactivity and user integration, user experience and mobile responsiveness—allowed the team to create an immersive, emotional audience experience. Lindamood also made a key point about the philosophical similarity between building a Web experience and building a documentary one: “Thinking about a Web documentary in this way—the layers include information architecture, visual design and user behavior—is not so different from thinking about the layers of a film, which includes elements like score, cinematography, editing. Thinking about the audience is crucial.”

Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt

From NPR’s ‘Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt.’

And according to the panelists, audience is the connective tissue between linear documentary storytelling and adapting for digital projects. Lindamood noted the importance of audience considerations in the development of a Web documentary, and Beach Nichols and Walker agreed that a Kickstarter campaign is actually about building a community of people who care about a film project. Walker also noted that they made their film specifically with a theater audience in mind, saying that it takes on a bit of a horror-movie quality and “is designed to be seen in a dark room.” (Welcome to Leith is about a white supremacist who moves to Leith, North Dakota to start a colony).

The final panel of the day, “IMPACT 2.0: The Power of Documentary,” presented in association with the film advocacy and social action firm Picture Motion, focused specifically on the increasingly sophisticated strategies used to connect social-issue documentary films with public policy and other social change advocacy. Heidi Nel, Picture Motion principal, served as moderator alongside panelists Congressman Ted Lieu (D-33rd District, California); Beth Colleton, senior vice president of corporate social responsibility/sustainability at NBCUniversal; Daniel O’Meara, a campaign director at RADiUS; Zach Ingrasci and Salam Darwaza, director and producer, respectively, of the documentary Salam Neighbor.

Nel kicked off the conversation by recounting some notable examples in the pursuit of social impact and social change through documentary storytelling: “Members of Congress credit The Invisible War with 30 pieces of introduced legislation; Blackfish crippled SeaWorld; and Food Chains is now working on a city level to impact change.”

Lieu acknowledged the idea that documentaries can provide the emotional connection that help to shift public opinion “in an entertaining way,” which can significantly help elected leaders in their support for important social issues. In agreement, Colleton said NBCUniversal is working across its 40 distinct media brands to provide unique opportunities for audience engagement in social issues, but celebrating the fact that a full spectrum of “action”—from audiences simply learning and sharing information to becoming activists—is a “win.” NBCUniversal aired a film about food waste called Just Eat It, and between the film and a parallel consumer engagement campaign called “No Food Wasted,” the company is not only spotlighting the problems of food waste through storytelling but also directly telling people what they can do.

O’Meara, who typically distributes films, worked on Fed Up, and he said the idea of building social action with a documentary can be a contribution to the film’s overall success, not only important for advancing change in an important social issue. “For Fed Up, we were able to find advocacy partners who were energetic and able to engage their own constituents to help make change,” he explained. “This also helps to keep the film alive in the box office.”

Salam Neighbor

From Zach Ingrasci and Salam Darwaza’s ‘Salam Neighbor.’

For Ingrasci and Darwaza, social change and impact thinking were built into the subject access and storytelling of Salam Neighbor, which focuses on the Syrian refugee crisis facing more than four million displaced people. With an intimate story that follows Ingrasci and co-director Chris Temple during their one-month stay at the Za’atari refugee camp, humanitarian NGOs like Save the Children and government entities like the US State Department are now working with the team to help deepen the reach and show a needed new human perspective of the refugee crisis. Congressman Lieu acknowledged the film’s ability to help shift public opinion that’s deeply intertwined with legislative and policy shifts.

“The simple act of showing people what a refugee camp even looks like is important; this shows that these refugees are families just like us,” said Lieu. “When we think about the staggering numbers of people living in refugee camps, we can’t fully comprehend what that really means, but this is a big shift in public opinion to show this side of an issue because there’s so much focus on the violence in the area.”

On Friday, documentary filmmakers were invited to test their pitches and show brief footage clips to representatives from a corps of notable documentary funders, including Cal Humanities, Catapult Film Fund, Creative Capital, The Harnisch Foundation, IDA, ITVS, LEF Foundation, The National Endowment for the Humanities and Sundance Documentary Fund.

The final panel of the conference focused on a months-long public discussion about the future of independent documentary films on PBS. Two months after PBS announced that the long-running Independent Lens and POV strands would remain on PBS on Mondays at 10 p.m.—after a December 2014 WNET announcement about moving independent documentaries off their prime-viewing time slot—several key constituents discussed what’s to come during the panel titled “Expanding the Reach and Visibility of Indie Film on PBS.” Moderator and independent documentary producer Dawn Porter (Rise: The Promise of My Brother’s Keeper) joined panelists Marie Nelson, vice president, PBS News & Public Affairs; Tamara Gould, ITVS senior vice president of national production and strategic partnerships; and Bernardo Ruiz, documentary director/producer.

Porter began by announcing that this panel was the first public opportunity to learn how PBS plans to bolster independent documentary storytelling and ensure that diverse voices and perspectives continue to be heard. Porter reminded the audience that in Nelson’s new position at PBS, she is charged with developing and implementing the independent strategy.

Nelson presented the strategy—now in its early stages—and assured the audience that PBS is committed to hearing from diverse independent voices and increasing the reach of indies across platforms. In her presentation, she detailed that PBS will commit to the following:

  • Executing targeted primetime common-carriage independent film events that are integrated into the broader content strategy around thematic/flow programming
  • Maintaining the Independent Lens and POV premieres on Mondays at 10 p.m.
  • Targeting two or three films per year for broader acquisition/distribution rights, including theatrical, broadcast and wider streaming windows
  • Underwriting social media campaigns for every film this year—for the first time ever
  • Producing a PBS Previews Indies Spotlight
  • Increasing spending on marketing and promotion across the board for all independent films on PBS.
  • In partnership with PBS LearningMedia, Independent Lens and POV, developing a curriculum for a non-credit college course on documentaries that highlights the upcoming season of films.

“Right now, we’re in the early stages of implementation, continuing our work with the series producers to launch these initiatives,” said Nelson.

Nelson stressed that the early strategy is not designed as a one-year experiment. She closed by saying that the implementation details of the PBS Independents strategy will be forthcoming over the next several months.