Open source film making with Todd Harris

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An old-fashioned video camera

Canadian documentary filmmaker Todd Harris gets up close and personal with the communities he films. He is especially attracted to stories that involve an underdog fighting for justice against government and corporate interests, where he can cover a side of the conflict that is usually untouched by mainstream media. Until a few years ago, he restricted himself to issues that were particular to Canada. Now he plans to extend his research into the international realm.

I first noticed Todd two years ago at the infamous Dump Site 41 protest in the Georgian Bay area of Ontario, Canada, as he casually surfed the crowd, sometimes talking, sometimes filming. But it wasn't until his film aired at Georgian College one blustery night in December 2010 that I realized who he was.

This time his short film was used as a segue into Liz Marshall’s film, Water: On the Table, which follows Council of Canadians’ National Chairperson Maude Barlow, on a trip to the United Nations. (Maude is Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the UN General Assembly, to the Alberta Tar Sands, and to Site 41 in Simcoe County.) Todd's films have aired throughout the country and can be found in college and university libraries across Canada.

Todd and I finally met at a Christmas gathering for former Site 41 protest participants and activists. As we spoke he was approached by a number of people who wanted to contribute footage to his film. It seemed that although the film had already aired at the local college, it was still under production, in a collaborative sort of way. ...Open source film making? Why not? "Site 41 and Beyond" as it presently exists will serve as the introduction to a more in-depth production to come. It seems that there are advantages to releasing early, often, and collaboratively in the film industry. These include accuracy, transparency, and the good will of your collaborators.

Todd's two short films in their present incarnations can be streamed from his website. He also answered the following questions for us:

1) What one big opportunity, outside of technology, do you think has the best chance of being solved the open source way (i.e., through collaboration, transparency, sharing, meritocracy, rapid prototyping, community, etc.)?

Transparency is the one big opportunity where the open source way has the best chance of solving issues involving how and what things are being produced, and how they might be better produced.

In the case of documentary film production, it is always a good thing to inform those subjects of the documentary how the documentary is being produced, and what is being produced, so that those very same subjects can communicate back to the producer/director any additional information, elaboration, or correction during the documentary process to help create the final cut of the documentary in a way that is as true to the subjects and storyline as is possible. The open source way provides a gateway for such interaction and feedback, allowing for the possibility that the production will be authentic and reflect the closest possible reality of the situation(s), whereby giving the subjects and audience the best possible product upon completion.

2) What are some of the unexpected things you've discovered from your experiences that have strengthened the communities who are served by your films?

I think the most unexpected thing I’ve discovered through my experiences that has strengthened the communities my documentary films have served is the generosity of giving that comes from opening yourself to that community. I have received photographs and film/video footage by persons involved in the subject of my documentaries, which has sometimes made its way into the final productions, and given the appropriate credit in the production, which has only heightened the feelings of goodwill and accomplishment in their particular cause they are involved in, leading to their further commitment to their cause and the community they are working with.

Moreover, the other thing that has surprised me has been the near immediate acceptance into their world and their cause, which has been a wonderful experience for me, and allowed me to freely converse with people, and not be on guard, as I normally could be in another environment, where such openness and sharing is not expected, which again has a positive effect, by allowing me to be more open and sharing, and providing a better understanding of their cause, and thus better representing their community interests.

3) Thinking about your role in filmmaking, what is the most difficult thing about working outside the conventional business model for filmmakers, and what advice would you share with others?

Money! Funding!!! While money and funding are very much an issue in independent documentary film making, and are harder and harder to come by, the money and funding that are available to compete for, under a traditional conventional business model are tied to some very strange conditions, at least in Canada. Under current federal government funding policy, the unwritten rule is that they will provide a certain amount of funding:

  • to a successful applicant
  • as a percentage of the total budget
  • with a television broadcaster triggering such funding
  • under a particular funding formula and envelope
  • that broadcasters are mandated to fulfill to independent documentary producers
  • under the condition that should your production be successful after its broadcast debut(s) (and in some cases, in a new media side to their project), in distribution, they will claw back a major part of their original funding to your project.

This translates into successful applicants who receive such funding having no real incentive to see their production be successful past the original television broadcast and/or new media screening. They usually simply move onto the next project, and forget the one they invested their time and energy in, as well as the subjects of the documentary as well.

And while it is important that television broadcasts and their new media counterparts be there as part of the entire distribution node/hub, they are only one part of its distribution. What about the wider distribution to the educational market, which includes college and university libraries, boards of education, and public libraries, as well as various community groups, and the hundreds of social networking organizing groups and progressive organizations that could benefit from such mass distribution? An open source approach simply bypasses such self-defeating policies, and allows for the widest possible dissemination of the final documentary, which serves the documentary producer, and moreso the subjects of his/her documentary, which aren’t simply left behind once the television and new media broadcast has been completed.

My advice is simple. Don’t get caught up in the hype by television and the new media industry. Television broadcasters are usually willing to consider helping fund and air your documentary, without matching funding coming from federal government documentary funding agencies/programs, if a solid alternative business model can be provided. In the case of documentary productions, involving oneself in the community efforts of the subjects involved in your documentary project can sometimes themselves be a source of funding, be it donations of money and/or pictures/footage, to working together with associated groups--to provide something for something, rather than something for nothing, as the classic donor model has existed for, but is at various tipping points right now and not the preferred philanthropy model at this time. Be inventive--be innovative. Involve yourself in the community--and be willing to think outside the box when trying to source your documentary funding, which will, if successful, better serve you as documentary producer, as well as your subjects being documented, and the larger audience, who should have the most and varied possible opportunities to see your documentary.

4) What attributes from the open source way stand out as pillars for community building, online and in real life?

Obviously, Wikipedia is the best known example of using the open source way. Adding to a tree of knowledge is always a good thing, especially when that knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from experts, but those people who are part of a particular area of interest, be they expert or not. While there may be criticism that such a model can’t be truly democratic, as there are wiki moderators, who have the power to delete or modify something, it is certainly preferable to reading material exclusively by an elite group of experts. There is at least a chance that your contribution will stick, and become a part of the larger whole. Similarly, in the case of documentary production, my approach is to listen to the various stories by the people living and/or being part of a particular area I am producing a documentary about, research the material, and make editorial decisions. I also am grateful for pictures and film/video footage I receive from people involved. They fully understand I can’t include everything, but for what is used, they are provided the appropriate credit, and in the final production, receive a minimal financial honorarium for their contribution, something they can be very proud of.

5) How do you apply the open source way in your everyday life?

I think I have provided various ways of doing so. Saying that, I would also like to add that I think rapid prototyping is something I try and incorporate into my documentary production process. For example, in my most recent documentary endeavor, I have already produced two short documentary pieces involving the same subject area, "Site 41: A Quarter Century Fight to Preserve Clean Water." The first is eight minutes in length, and covers particular events up to a given point in time, and the second short piece, now 12 minutes in time, incorporates most of that found in the first piece with some additional changes, as well as an update to the story and its resolution. Both are available for viewing at my website, which leads into the proposal to produce a one-hour documentary on the same subject matter, but in a more comprehensive and nuanced manner.

There are multiple advantages in the production of earlier prototypes such as this. First, you become immersed in the issues involved through ongoing contact with those people who are the subjects of the documentary, which in itself creates further advantages, including developing a trust and bond between yourself and the subjects of the documentary. You find that the research material and interviews you secure are far superior to what you would have accomplished if you had simply gone into the situation completely new and green.

Second, you find out in the course of the interviews and location shooting, what works and what doesn’t from a documentary producer’s/director's position, and you adjust your approach accordingly.

Third, the stories you film are better told from the standpoint of an informed interviewer, yourself, who has much more of an intimate knowledge of the issues the second and even the third time around, and can ask informed questions and receive high caliber questions in return.

Fourth, and finally, there is a definite cost saving by knowing beforehand which set of interviews would be better filmed at a particular location and time than other interviews, something that can only be obtained through prior run-throughs and past experiences in the production of a prototype or prototypes.

Beverly Pearl is an artist, educator and writer with a passion for social equity, science and technology.

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