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'California' Streamin': New Media Docs Chronicle Local Stories

By Tamara Krinsky

From <em>Borderland </em>(left) and <em>Scrapertown </em>(right), shorts from Drea Coper and Zackary Canepari's California is a Place web project

Usually when one is heading to a new place and wants to get an idea of the local culture, a few websites pop up as regular resources for everything from restaurant recommendations to local hikes. But for a deeper dive into the character of a place, the Internet has now become host to mini-documentaries that reveal what lurks beneath the surface of the generic tourism site. Once such series, California Is a Place, played this past fall in the DocLab at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and was featured as part of a "New Frontiers" panel at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

The project is comprised of multiple Web documentaries that look at various aspects of life in the Golden State, and has been viewed over 2.5 million times. Directors Drea Cooper and Zackary Canepari met as production assistants on a commercial in 2005, and within months were flying to Kosovo to work on a mutual friend's documentary. Cooper shot film and video and Canepari took photos, and the two had such a good working relationship that they decided they'd like to work on their own project together. However, it wasn't until 2009 that they were actually in the same place at the same time and able to do so.

That first project became "Cannonball", which looks at skateboarders who take over deserted swimming pools in rundown Fresno. The film opens with images of dried out, neglected pools and houses, set against the sound of skateboard wheels on cement. The distinctive sound emphasizes the sense of abandonment, cluing the listener in that this is more than just a capricious story about a bunch of skate punks fooling around. The houses are the victims of foreclosures, and though they are trespassing, the skaters clean out the pools and take out the trash after skating, taking care to respect the remnants of the California dream the houses represent.

After viewing the edit of "Cannonball", Cooper and Canepari were so enthused that they began discussing what they were going to do next, as well as how these films would connect and be presented. In May 2010, the website went live with the first four films.

The duo intended from the very beginning for the project to be a Web series, and that's why they chose a length of five to eight minutes for each piece. "We want them to be long enough to create a feeling, get into a person's world and understand some of the details of their life--but not much more than that," Cooper explains. "The films are really meant to be moments and slices of a person's life. And we think, at least at this point in online viewing, people are pretty comfortable watching things under 10 minutes. Anything longer requires a different kind of commitment when bouncing around online."

Caspar Sonnen, who runs the IDFA DocLab, identifies California Is a Place as part of an important emerging genre of online filmmaking: the serial online road movie. He says that together with a blog and other Web 2.0 tools, they combine linear short docs to tell a bigger story about one specific location or theme.

"Documentary shorts are notoriously difficult to distribute through the traditional documentary industry, outside of great initiatives such as the Wholphin DVD," says Sonnen. "And it's great to see projects like California Is a Place that use the Web to find their audience and create a narrative space around their stories. The shorts can be watched on their own, but also watched together. As a result, the unrelated characters and stories start becoming part of bigger story: the story of a place, told in a very loose and pleasant way. Other great examples of this type of Web documentary that we've featured at IDFA DocLab include Interview Project and Sparrow Songs."

The wide-ranging subjects of the California Is a Place shorts include a scraper bike team ("Scrapertown"), locals disheartened by drug smugglers ("Borderland"), sex-doll maker Matt McMullen ("Honey Pie"), a romantic mariachi player ("El Rey") and an Alameda car salesman ("Big Vinny"). Cooper and Canepari find their subjects through a combination of newspaper articles, radio stories and word-of-mouth.

"We're always looking for stories and people who in some way represent a part of California life in totally unexpected and unique ways," say Cooper and Canepari. "We kept driving by all of these car dealerships that were closing their doors by the day. It was right in front of us. So we started shooting them. Within three months we had shot our first four stories. We began to discover what this series was going to be about: stories that touch on the issues of the State--the economy, immigration, art, urban youth, gangs, celebrity, medical marijuana, sex, religion, etc.--but told from perspectives often overlooked."

The filmmakers are also drawn to stories that are visually interesting, and the striking cinematography is a key defining element of the series. While many write it off as a forum for talking heads and jerky photography, Sonnen believes that the Web is an open canvas for visual creativity. "The great thing about the Web is that it has been possible for a few years now to create fantastic visual experiences," he notes. "The image quality has now become so high that at IDFA DocLab we are taking Web docs into the cinema for live cinema events where the filmmaker performs a 'director's navigation' for a paying audience.

"Just as the portable film cameras developed by the Army in World War II eventually gave rise to Direct Cinema in documentary and the work of John Cassavetes in fiction, the RED and the Canon 5D and other devices are now facilitating new forms of digital filmmaking," Sonnen maintains. "One visible trend in Web documentary [helped along nicely by DSLRs that shoot video] is the convergence of print, photography, Web design, media art and film to tell documentary stories."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine and writes regularly about science, new media, entertainment technology. For more: