At the end of the year, documentaries tend to get more play in the culture. Maybe it’s the oncoming of winter that makes people more inclined for the gravitas of the non-fiction form. Also, awards season heats up with more press about docs. Festivals in Toronto and New York launch new films. This year, the new Michael Moore movie, Where Do We Invade Next, has been getting plenty of buzz.
There was something pretty different this year too. Last month, there was an announcement that Oscar-winning director Laura Poitras, filmmaker and doc impresario AJ Schnack, and former Hot Docs programmer Charlotte Cook were starting a new documentary platform: Field of Vision. It will be an extension of The Intercept, a modern muckraking outfit that is backed by First Look Media and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
I’m coming to this a little late, which may be a good thing, because the dust has settled. I spoke with Schnack last week, who sounds very excited.
“When you are planning something like this, not in secret but in silence, over the course of a half a year, you hope that people will respond,” he said. “And people are understanding what we’re trying to do. They are interested and they see the potential in this new platform.”
Poitras and First Look got into talks about a documentary platform, and Field of Vision began to take shape. She then reached out to Schnack and Cook. Schnack dates the idea back to when he was working with Poitras seven years ago on Convention, a wide collaboration of many filmmakers covering the 2008 Democratic National Convention. But he could find earlier threads as well. In the 1990s, Schnack ran a music video company and worked with a variety of filmmakers who had to churn out material quickly on short assignments. “It’s a thrilling way of working compared to the grind of the usual documentary process, which can be rewarding in other ways.”
Field of Vision plans to commission 40 to 50 short-form docs each year. They’ll mostly run on the Intercept website, and some will be coming to theaters, festivals and broadcast in partnerships. They are interested in episodic, multipart work. The current season of films runs through November and a second season will begin in early 2016. The filmmakers will be both veterans (Poitras, Michael Moore, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher) and newbies.
What’s particularly compelling about Field of Vision is that it’s being run—Poitras, Schnack and Cook can greenlight without approval—by people who are so intimately in tune with the filmmaker community (two of them are filmmakers). They want to make Field of Vision work for everyone.
“Normally, in documentary, the money is so tight,” Schnack says. “There is an expectation that you should be grateful for the smallest morsel. We want to be able to pay documentary filmmakers for the work.”
Of course, this isn’t entirely new. The New York Times has been running Op-Docs for a while, and Vice has been making it mark in the short form arena. (I’d suggest a softball tournament between these guys and the POV staff but maybe ultimate Frisbee is a better bet.)
But while Vice has a considered, in-your-face, millennial vibe to it, Schnack doesn’t see Field of Vision developing a “house style.”
“We want what’s surprising and cinematic and what works best for each film,” he says.
Check out the site here. I was impressed by the film Notes from the Border, by Iva Radivojevic, about the refugee crisis in Europe. It depicts people trying to find a sustainable life after leaving Syria. Perusing the site, the films do feel somewhat random. They’re well done, interesting and relevant but it seems like there needs to be more of a raison d’etre. I’m sure most people are tired of so many sign posts telling us why we need to be visiting a particular site. But there needs to be a thread. Maybe it’s just the newness of it all.
What is especially promising is how The Intercept weds a story about homeless people and their relationships with dogs in Rio de Janeiro written by Glenn Greenwald with a more impressionistic film, Birdie, about a homeless man in Rio de Janeiro. I look forward to seeing more of that—showing how journalism and documentary can complement each other in ways that touch us in differently.