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Future Doc: The View from Sundance

By Cara Mertes

Cara Mertes is an award-winning filmmaker, producer, programmer and writer in the independent documentary field

Sundance is well-known for its annual film festival, and for its filmmaker labs. But there is more to Sundance than that—something never before revealed, until now. As part of the top-secret Sundance Classified Lab, I have been experimenting with developing a new form of documentary. I call it docu-fu—documentaries about the future. I think it will be hugely popular in theaters, especially in the coming age of 3-D projection. Animation first, documentary next, I always say. Going to the movies will never be the same.

In our under-the-radar research, we are modeling future scenarios in order to better predict and affect the outcome. We want documentary to survive, even if nothing else does. It could be the human race’s time capsule to future civilizations. But don’t worry, that’s just a worst-case scenario.

What, you are asking, are the other scenarios? As chance would have it, I am able to reveal these to you in the interests of documentary’s future. We’d like to know what you think.

Future Scenario 1

It’s 2020. There is no more public television. Actually, there is no more television at all. Worldwide, there has been a transition to digital, and people no longer watch “television.” There are theaters for mass live events, and home theaters for community and family events. Google bought Apple and is now centered in Denmark, where it’s cooler (it’s called Gaaple). They are vying with Microsoft (now called Infosoft, and based in Juneau) for information dominance. Globalflix (formerly known as Netflix) introduced a universal download archive of all of the former libraries of the world’s broadcasters in 2015, putting television in the dustbin. All people are watching their watches, and the middle has dropped out of the filmmaking world. Films are called “content projects,” and they are either macro-budget ($200 million and above) or micro-budget ($1 million and below). Since the Chinese now own 90 percent of the industry, all budgets now appear in yuan. Also, documentaries have completed their merge with fiction filmmaking, and it is all called “storytelling.” Since so much of an average person’s life is now happening in Second, Third and the newly introduced Limbo Life, it is increasingly difficult to adhere to 20th century notions what is “real.”

Future Scenario 2

It’s still 2020, and it’s really more of the same stuff you experience now, only a lot more. Millions of people now identify as documentary filmmakers on the yearly global activity census that is conducted. People wear tiny cameras and mics throughout their lives, recording everything. Whatever they select is shown on their “LifeSpace” (formerly known as MySpace), and it is common to spend many hours watching other people’s lives. With so much of the activity of living done by others, obesity now affects 42 percent of the global population, resulting in the self-fulfilling phenomenon of literally not being able to do much but watch. There are no more film critics, so people set their personal databases on a constant random search. Theatrical distribution has morphed into on-demand projection at any location you choose. You don’t buy a ticket to a film; you buy the one-time use of the film file for your use. The good news is that film festivals now exist in every community of over 2,000 people globally, each starting their calendar with the annual projection coordinated by Sundance’s GlobalScreen initiative.

In all seriousness, it’s 2007, and thinking about the future of documentary, after over 100 years of extraordinary history, is daunting indeed. What has held the most interest for me is the strain of documentary practice that has sought to articulate an oppositional or counter-cultural position, whether that takes the form of aesthetic experimentation, intellectual investigation, or both. Often it has been a marginalized practice, but at certain junctures it has jumped the tracks, so to speak, and inspired a shift or transformation in mainstream culture.

It happened in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, the 1930s in the UK, in the 1950s with Edward R. Murrow’s reporting during the McCarthy hearings, and again with Harvest of Shame. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the US saw a still resonant evolution of documentary when the direct cinema documentary practice developed, and simultaneously the work of Emile de Antonio, collectives like California Newsreel and Third World Newsreel, and documentaries like Harlan County, USA broke open the question of race and class, politics and secrecy. The history has continued with vibrant examples through the 1980s and 1990s to now. For me, one of the concepts that links these efforts is freedom of expression. The power to tell your own story, your way, to your audiences, has never been more possible, more at risk politically, or more important historically.
We have other challenges, for after 60 years of commercially dominated media, audiences have largely been disengaged from understanding the cause and effect surrounding the conditions of their lives. They have been alienated from the political process, and hammered by a constant message of consumerism.

Today’s independent documentarians face the task of bringing audiences back to the table to think about their world in a new way. They must not only attract already existing audiences; they must also engender the creation of audiences that are capable of and interested in informed critique. In a society that generally promotes de-historicization and de-politicization en masse, part of the challenge of the new documentary movement is not just to raise awareness of important issues or to entertain people with great storytelling. It is to create a culture of engagement, one where people feel that they can effect change on an individual level, and also see how that is related to the whole. It reminds them that they have an investment in the global story, not just their family’s story.

I am an optimist. You have to be to work in documentary. Despite the gravity of many of the stories, it is a language of hope. For the first time, I am seeing an irreversible trend towards a confluence of styles, resulting in inspired experimentation; a collection of niche audiences more eager to see documentaries both on television, in theaters at home and online; an expanding interest in contemporary-issue filmmaking; and an information distribution system that has transformed any previously established patterns for nonfiction film: the Internet.

Nonfiction is being adapted by younger storytellers, well-established fiction producers and directors are diversifying into documentary, production costs are going down (though editing remains a labor and cost-intensive process), and in a very few but very important cases, tickets for theatrical screenings are selling, bringing a new industry focus to the long-form documentary form.

These new documentarians are more fluent with different genres. Animation mixes with dramatic story structure (only with real people), complemented by re-enactment and aided by some of the most beautiful cinematography on screen today. They employ comedy, empathy, whimsy, steely-eyed witnessing and focused investigative research. They do what all stories do—they call upon the humanity of each person listening, they reinforce values and they teach lessons about life.

But not every story is a “good” story. Many are told with the purpose of narrowing our worldview, defining our differences and cementing our fears.
In contrast, as part of my role at the Sundance Documentary Program, I work with filmmakers in the US and abroad who are dedicated to going into the silence and telling stories no one else is telling—everything from global warming to stem cell research to recovery from war and global struggles for self-determination and independence.

These filmmakers are standing witness to today’s realities, but it is not all anxious voiceovers and depressing statistics. Taking on the mantle of the great theatrical and novelistic traditions of the 19th and 20th centuries, documentary in the 21st century is rising to a new level of artistic accomplishment with stories and characters that remind us who we are and what we can become, both good and bad.

But this is not a moment for passive storytelling. Increasingly, documentaries are fulfilling two great mandates. They are embedding the possibility of action in their storytelling, and they are filling some of the void left by the dying art of journalism as we have known it through our major media. This confluence is making contemporary documentary the seminal storytelling form of the 21st century.

These documentaries are my breaking stories—deeply considered, well-rendered and researched, catalyzing to watch and full of all the storytelling skill they can muster. They are not traditional journalism, but they function to give us news of the way people live, believe and act globally. Journalist Bill Moyers has said, “The moment freedom begins is the moment you realize someone else has been writing your story. Freedom begins when you take the pen. Tell the story.” That is the challenge I see being taken up by documentarians across the globe. It is not an optimistic evaluation; it is simply that there is no choice. The future of freedom is at stake.


Cara Mertes is an award-winning filmmaker, producer, programmer and writer in the independent documentary field. She was executive producer of P.O.V. on PBS from 1999 to 2006, and is currently the director of the Documentary Film Program at Sundance Institute, supporting contemporary-issue documentary storytellers globally.