Skip to main content

The DIY Decade: Docs Thrived in the Digital Revolution

By Tom White

The end of a decade book-ended by calamity--September 11 and the Great Recession--and defined by terror, war and natural disaster hardly inspires one to look back wistfully, or even ruefully. Even the glimmer of hope and change that we thought was a burst of sunshine in November 2008, is, for now, a glimmer.

But the 2000s also saw a bracing and dizzying evolution in the digital infrastructure. While the seeds were planted in the 1990s and before, with bandwidth starting to expand  in concert with more global access to the Web, despite the implosion of the late 1990s, companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube quickly emerged a couple of years later, and in the blink of an eye and the click of a mouse, not only dominated the digital industry, but defined how we live our lives today. Communication, Participation, Empowerment-these are the driving forces that make a community, even a democracy. And the speed with which this is all accomplished today has changed the way the world spins.

So, it's this ying and yang of doom and hyper-democracy that keeps this world from spinning out of control. And it's been the context in which the documentary community has enjoyed its finest hour, its Golden Age, as many are saying. The introduction of digital cameras in the mid-1990s and the predominance of the Internet lowered the barriers to entry for documentary, making the process more affordable and more dynamic, ushering in a younger generation of storytellers and a bevy of artists from other disciplines, all conspiring to push the art form forward, rethinking strategies and parameters, mixing in animation and fiction tropes, making the storytelling the catalyst for conveying the message.

And as broadcast journalism succumbed to marketplace, shareholder and CEO pressures, seasoned veterans like Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw and the late Peter Jennings left (or were pushed from) their anchor chairs to pursue stories that necessitated more time and space than a 15-minute segment would warrant. And as the War in Iraq grew more complicated and intractable as the years went by, it was those intrepid makers like James Longley, Andrew Berends, Laura Poitras and a handful of others who went unembedded to ferret out a ground-level version of the truth.

The 2000s also brought unprecedented success at the box office for documentary makers, with more docs passing the $1 million gross mark this past decade than in most other decades combined. The year 2004 was a benchmark, with 11 docs making over $1 million, including Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911, the reigning box office champ at $119.5 million. This past year, 11 more docs surpassed $1 million, including Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, which he says might be his last documentary--which may hold as much credence as Bret Favre's annual retirement announcements.

But the Moore Effect may be on the wane in the coming decade. He has the Bush Family to thank for his successes-Roger & Me came out during the first Bush Administration, and the power quartet of Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 911, SiCkO and the Bush Era referendum Capitalism: A Love Story pulled in a combined total of nearly $200 million at the domestic box office. But now that he doesn't have Bush to kick around anymore--does anyone remember The Big One and Canadian Bacon from the Clinton Era?--who will be the next tidal wave to float the rest of the boats in the new decade?

But perhaps that doesn't matter. The period between those epochal years 2004 and 2009 was a decidedly lean one, in which the specialty divisions of many majors disappeared, as did many early champions of docs like THINKFilm, who based their gambles on early successes like Spellbound to pay too much for relative disappointments like In the Shadow of the Moon. Filmmakers and distributors both began to rethink the traditional models of distribution, retooling the windows, considering alternative venues, and hopping on the broadband bandwagon. As the tools of social networking came more into prominence, just as distribution deals showed less remunerative promise, filmmakers started taking their work right to their audiences, either by themselves or in a hybrid or service deal. Robert Greenwald was an early practitioner of DIY filmmaking in the digital era (Props to the analog era self-distro pioneers like Arthur Dong, Barbara Trent and Freida Lee Mock for blazing the trail.), gathering audiences for his politically charged films online, and encouraging them to host screenings in their living rooms. Even before Greenwald, Sandi DuBowski worked out a partnership with the dearly departed New Yorker Films to take his 2001 film Trembling Before G-d to audiences across the nation, and incorporate discussions with the filmmaker or subjects after each screening. 

DIY is becoming the rule, as filmmakers like Ondi Timoner (We Live in Public), Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) and Matthew Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) have demonstrated with their respective films., and as enablers like Peter Broderick and Scott Kirsner have inculcated in their respective presentations around the world. Musical artists started down this road a long time ago, touring relentlessly, selling CDs at concerts and online and eventually going it alone, leaving the music industry mavens, never the most ethically grounded bunch, adrift and apoplectic. Filmmakers are firing up both sides of the brain now, thinking like artists and businesspeople. The documentary form is at a vital time, having grown and expanded artistically and commercially. Let's hope with this new decade, the ballyhooed next frontier of the Internet will yield the kind of self-sustaining-even, thriving-revenue streams that docmakers deserve.


And now, for one last longing look back, here's my list of 25 of my favorite docs of the decade-in alphabetical order:


51 Birch Street (Dir.: Doug Block)
The Betrayal (Dir.: Ellen Kuras)
Bus 174 (Dir.: Jose Padhila)
Capturing The Friedmans (Dir.: Andrew Jarecki)
Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed (Dir.: Shola Lynch)
Darwin's Nightmare (Dir.: Hubert Sauper)
Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father (Dir.: Kurt Kuenne)
The Five Obstructions (Dirs.: Lars Von Trier and Jorgen Leth)
Grizzly Man (Dir.: Werner Herzog)
Hybrid (Dir.: Montieth McCollum)
In the Pit (Dir.: Juan Carlos Rulfo)
Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple (Dir.: Stanley Nelson)
Kurt Cobain About a Son (Dir.: AJ Schnack)
La Danse (Dir.: Frederick Wiseman)
Los Angeles Plays Itself (Dir.: Thom Andersen)
Must Read After My Death (Dir.: Morgan Dews)
Protagonist (Dir.: Jessica Yu)
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (Dir.: Marina Zenovich)
The Same River Twice (Dir.: Robb Moss)
The Staircase (Dir.: Jean-Xavier De Lestrade)
Stone Reader (Dir.: Mark Moskowitz)
Tarnation (Dir.: Jonathan Caouette)
Tupac: Resurrection (Dir.: Lauren Lazin)
Waltz with Bashir (Dir.: Ari Folman)
When the Levees Broke (Dir.: Spike Lee)


Thomas White is editor of Documentary and content editor of