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StreamWorks: FourDocs Showcases the Old and the New

By Tamara Krinsky

If you're burned out on cute cat videos on YouTube and looking for more serious fare, check out the FourDocs Archive.  A joint effort between the UK's Channel Four and Magic Lantern Productions, the website is part online doc film festival, part film school, and offers a collection of curated documentaries past and present.

The site had its genesis about five years ago when Magic Lantern Chief Executive Anthony Lilley got together with FourDocs Executive Editor Patrick Uden, and the two realized the need for an outlet for user-generated documentaries. Charlie Phillips, FourDocs editor, says, "They hadn't even decided then if it would be online or on television. They just thought it would be good to harness technology to create a place where people could put documentaries that they'd made, and for those who were interested in making films." 

Lilley had the foresight to see that their idea could work online, given the spread of broadband. He wanted to create a space where people could upload documentaries easily, yet still feel like their material was being showcased in a classy way. A priority for Uden was educating people about the documentary art form. Two of the site's features that separate it from the plethora of streaming video sites proliferating the 'net are the ability to watch full-length historical documentaries and the "Make Docs" section, a collection of educational filmmaking guides.

Currently, viewers can click on a nifty little timeline to see a description of nonfiction milestones, including both significant films and technological advancements such as the launch of the first DVCam. The historical film collection has been curated by Phillips and Uden. Says Phillips, "We don't necessarily feature the most successful and popular films, but rather those that we think represent important benchmarks in documentary history or haven't necessarily been seen that often. For example, The Biscuit Factory from 1906, which is 100 years old. It's very grainy footage of workers in a biscuit factory, but it's a real pioneering film in showing process, in getting working people to work as if there was no camera watching them." FourDocs has worked out non-exclusive pacts with the rights-holders of the films, and will often publicize DVD releases for distributors in tandem with their online appearances.  

While Phillips and Uden approve all of the longer content that appears on the site, anyone can upload pieces of less than five minutes as long as they pass FourDocs' legal standards. Filmmakers are required to upload consent forms for anyone appearing onscreen and permissions from composers or music distributors. Phillips says this is good practice for filmmakers, for if they get a broadcast credit they'll have to go through a much more stringent process. Those who are interested in uploading longer pieces to the site should upload a five-minute version and include information about where to see the full version of the film.  

Another point of distinction of FourDocs is that it acts as an unofficial farm team for Channel 4. The Channel provides the funding for FourDocs, and houses it on its website. FourDocs forwards the strongest material uploaded to Channel 4 or More4, its sister channel, for possible broadcast screenings. At press time, there was a contest running on the site soliciting pieces dealing with themes of "short journeys and movement that reveal the complexities of everyday life." Four winners were to be selected for a June broadcast on Channel 4 in the 3 Minute Wonder strand.

Future FourDocs plans include more offline screenings around London to provide more exposure for both the site and documentaries in general. The team at FourDocs also wants to do more mentoring of their filmmakers, further activating the "online film school" concept. Says Phillips, "At the moment, people upload, we tell them what we think of it and we give them a bit of guidance. But we'd really like to be able to take people right through from them telling us ideas they want to do, then helping them make it, to really helping them with how well they've made it, and perhaps finding an executive producer to help them with future films."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary magazine.