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hot docs talks: Tools for Change
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Transcripts from interviews conducted at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, April 25 - May 4, 2003
Theme 7: Tools for Change
Does new media live up to the hype? Are digital technologies just useful tools for doc-makers? Or are they redefining the shape of documentary itself?
Sara Diamond and Peter Wintonick
Sara: Let's talk a little bit about whether digital media are simply another set of tools or whether they actually provide something else to makers because they are different tools. What do you think about that?
Peter: I think it all is about tools and, ultimately, it's about art and how you forget that you're using tools. If you look at the history of film and image capturing processes since 1895, it has really been a kind of parallel history between... well, say the Lumiere Brothers, who were the people who owned the photographic company, and the poets and the magicians like Meliese. And there have been these divergent kind of - we'll say parallel - histories that have developed. It's important to really know your tools if you're an artist like Van Gogh, to understand the quality of the paints and the paint brushes and the canvas. But it doesn't mean that you're going to paint a nice picture of sunflowers.
Sara: One thing that has been really exciting here has been a number of people who actually invent and build technologies, and do that side by side with users. And that is a characteristic of the digital generation - where people, in a way that's quite different from the previous generation, know how to take over, hack into, appropriate, build, and make systems of communication that others can use for tactical and documentary means.
It's interesting though how an older generation - not just older - of documentary makers see digital technologies as just another set of tools that enhances their palette, so to speak. Whereas some of the younger makers, like the Phonebook people, they really use very specific tools in different sorts of ways to create a framework for participation. We've also seen the micro media or micro documentary phenomenon, where very low-end technology is being used to capture very immediate, almost 24/7 sorts of experiences - for both audiences and also for makers - serial documentary. And that's because the tools are different and allow different things. So I don't think it's only that we now have lightweight cheap cameras - though that's helped - the tools actually change the kinds of productions that people make.
Peter: It also changes your relationship to subject, and to the media itself. It helps you redefine - one hopes, every time you go out - the thing that you're doing. I think there just has to be this kind of union and communion with your tool, so to speak. And in transcending the mechanics and the electronics of the thing you can make it an invisible weapon in your hands.
Technology is the new tool, it's the new weapon that we have. It used to be the bow and arrow. Now it's the tripod and the camera. Basically for trying to wrong some rights - or right some wrongs actually - that happened with the Aboriginal people; to battle through the medium of television and get some perspective. And that's one of the main reasons why the APTN network was started - to get that perspective across that wasn't being heard, so that when we move forward with getting some of our land back, for example, people will have a perspective and maybe an understanding of that. That's important for us. That's a very, very powerful tool, and one that we are using more and more.
So many people are media literate now, so many kids in high school are learning right away. They're already picking up DV cameras, they're already learning how to make their own zines, they're online all the time, they're wired into the world. It's fantastic. It's like everything we could have ever imagined. It's like more than science fiction could have told us twenty or twenty five years ago. I see it with my own kids, and I see it with their friends, how brilliant they are. These fifteen year olds, these twenty year olds now. What amazing work they can do, and they're already doing. So the thing that's happening - and it's happening of course with people in mid-career - they're able to pick up their DV cameras, and they're able to work with AVIDS, and they're able to make films that could have cost $500,000 and do them now for $100,000. And that is the good part. Of course, what you're doing here, with the streaming and getting it out in a new revolutionary way in terms of digital distribution, is also all part of that. And all of that I think is fabulous. That is I think where the technologies are bringing us - to the point where at some point it will be possible for people to make film the way that people write books. And we're getting very, very close to that - where really, if you want to do it, if you want to write a book, you just sit down and you write your book. You don't have to apply for a lot of money to do it. If you get a little bit of money so you buy some time, that's all you need. We're almost at the point now where filmmakers in five or ten years - almost now - can sit down with not much of a budget and make their own personal works. And that's true for both documentaries, and for dramas and for experimental films. And that's great.
Documentary for me is just a way to express myself - and I could care less whether it was a book, an article, or a documentary. I don't even care about calling myself a "filmmaker". I'm in documentaries because it's one way to say something and to explore the world. But whether it's documentaries, or fiction - or whether it's film or not film - is almost irrelevant to me. It happens that I've found a way to express myself, and occasionally actually make a living, in documentary film. But it's not about the medium, and if I found a medium that was more satisfying or better suited to something I wanted to do, I would do that. Which is just part of why, when we get into conversations about media - new media and technology - that part of it is not a big passion for me. Because they're just new tools. I mean, I used to cut films on a Steinbeck, and now I cut them on a Media 100. And I like and prefer the Media 100, but it's just a newer tool - it's not "the thing".
I'm essentially of the generation of people who, if we do a film, a camera -
even if it's mini DV - is still a camera. We film, we sound record, and then
we go into an editing room and we make a movie, and then it comes out when it's
finished. Now the process is much more interactive. We can use Web sites, we
can talk about the process, we can show things that we're doing. There's interactivity
while the film is being done, and people intervening. So this is something I
do know is happening. And in certain instances we're participating in that,
but it's still something that is quite still new to me. And I think a lot of
us, we have to admit, we're still not into this that much
Internet is a tool for us to get information or send information - it's interactive for information. It's still not the natural way for us, to go there to see images or see material. I know a lot of people, young people, do that and produce only for that. I'm not in the age of that. Probably it will change, and I will change also - I hope I will change also. But I still see Internet and Web sites as a support to the process we're into in filmmaking, more than being in itself, you know, a product.
John Haslett Cuff
I think what's interesting about the new technologies - even though I'm immune to them - I think the most interesting thing about them is, again, an expression of democracy. It's making tools of communication available to as many people as possible. I think that's overall a positive thing. Anything that wrests the power to communicate ideas from the grasp of the lawyer-heavy corporations that try to own everything in the damn world is great.
Fee Plumley: Essentially, everybody has a mobile phone, but very few people believe they can make content for that mobile phone. The Internet empowered everybody: Everybody knows that they can make a Web site really simply and really easily. People don't have that same attitude about their mobile phone. Yet they're quite happy to pay for services that other people sell them that are just full of corporate rubbish. So we think that, even though there's a fantastic opportunity out there, people just don't quite realize it yet. That's why we run the workshops - so we can teach people that this is an opportunity that they just haven't quite seen yet.
Yeah, new media. Well, what's new media? First of all I have to say that every new communications technology - we're talking photography, the telegraph, the television, and VCR - every time a new technology has come along to communicate and to make pictures, it's pushed some interesting buttons around certain social anxieties. And the same questions have been asked every single time. The first one is about "authenticity". Is it real? The second issue that comes up in every case is privacy. The public/private bounds get really shifted around every time. One of the other things that happens is, there's a questioning - and initially kind of a contempt for - the new form as having artistic possibilities. If you can imagine someone in 1912 with George Eastman's latest camera and saying, "Look, look at this amazing new tool I have." And other people are saying, "Well what do you need that thing for, can't you paint?" Well there's a little bit of that that goes on - that has gone with video, and is going on with the Internet, and is going on with Web cams now too. Initially, people have a lot invested in older art forms. Like with photography being accepted as a fine art, it takes a little while for people to concede that these are amazing new opportunities for creativity, for self expression.
I'm what Dorothy Hénaut calls a "techno twit". I sort of learned by the seat of my pants. I don't know too much about f-stops, and even the original photography, because it [digital technology] is easy to do, I'm less afraid of it, so I just do it. People actually are very surprised at the images that I shot. They say, "You shot that?" And I say, "Yes, I did." They say, "The sound is not so bad." I say, "It's not." So I guess when you're not afraid of it you can use it. It's just a case of embracing it.
Well I guess when you talk about digital technologies, as a documentary filmmaker going into the field, most of what I do is there. But you'd have to say that certainly the cameras have changed. Working on this film, I worked with three formats: I worked with DV cam, mini DV, and digi beta. What I found interesting is thinking, "Okay, I've got all these different formats, it's all digital - I can bring them in and everything will work fine." But it's not true. What I'm finding is that all these different places - all these different softwares and programs and post houses - they're not all talking to each other yet. The digital hasn't caught up yet. So there you are trying to make all of these things work and they're not. There's always one more step you have to go through to get to where you thought, "I've got this artist, I'll take him into [Adobe] After-Effects. And now I'll be able to take it out and bring it over there." And you find out you can't, because this is turned off and that's off. So it's not quite the revolution that we were hoping.
I'm really trying to encourage people to use my Web site as a way to get more background information to the topic, and as a way to link people with additional resources in terms of what's available to women who have come here as mail order brides. I'm constantly developing this information, but it's my hope that I will have links available for women to be able to find and access those resources. So that's something I'm looking forward to in the future. I'm also preparing a study guide that will accompany the documentary, that will help engage people in further discussion. And that I intend to have up on the Web site as well. So hopefully it will be more interactive.
For me, the new media haven't changed a thing in my life. Whether they're old or new media, they're just tools for being able to transmit a message, to be able to communicate with the world. Cameras, mics, computers, sure - when technology is more accessible, more user-friendly, when it costs less money, it becomes easier to use, easier to access. And sure, for independent filmmakers, you could say that it has made our life easier. But they're only tools. If you have nothing to say, if your message is empty, it won't be any more intelligent because you have a top-of-the-line computer.