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Want to make a documentary? Now you can

Technology has democratized documentary filmmaking
/ Source: The Associated Press

Got a political perspective? Grab a camera and make a statement. With today’s technology, we can all be part of a new cinematic dialogue.

When Robert Greenwald made a movie to show how Wal-Mart shortchanges its employees, Ron Galloway whipped together his own response, about how Wal-Mart workers love the mega-chain. Both debuted in mid-November.

By the time Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” hit video stores in October, 2004, three rebuttals were competing for shelf space.

Through the use of digital technology and Internet distribution it is now easier than ever for filmmakers to push their points of view. Movies can be made quickly and cheaply, then burned onto DVDs and disseminated worldwide on the Web.

“You couldn’t do these films with the old technology,” says Greenwald. “It’s tremendously exciting for the way it continues to democratize the process, from making the films to distributing them.”

Digital cameras make filmmaking accessibleGreenwald shot “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” with digital video cameras and edited the footage with Final Cut Pro, a Macintosh home editing system. He used the Internet to market the movie and arrange more than 7,000 community screenings.

Technology also made it possible to quickly and affordably produce his previous documentaries, “Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War” and “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.”

Digital video cameras start at less than $1,000. The latest version of Final Cut Pro sells for $999.

Without digital technology, Galloway never could have finished his film, “Why Wal-Mart Works & Why That Makes Some People Crazy,” in time to compete with “The High Cost of Low Price.” Galloway was preparing a book on the inner workings of Wal-Mart when he learned in June about Greenwald’s project. He decided to turn the book into a film and timed its release to coincide with Greenwald’s.

“We did a trailer in about two hours,” Galloway said. “We cut it in the car while driving down the New Jersey Turnpike.”

Galloway certainly isn’t the first filmmaker to use technology to rush production of a cinematic rebuttal.

When Jeff Hays saw Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” in July of 2004, he walked out of the theater determined to craft a response.

“It needed to be done and if I wasn’t going to do it, I was afraid of who might,” he recalls.

He spent 28 days shooting his film, “Fahrenhype 9/11,” which was released the same day as the “Fahrenheit” DVD. He calls it “the free-market answer.”

Hays’ latest work, “On Native Soil: The Documentary of the 9/11 Commission Report,” made the initial cut for 2005 Oscar consideration.

Speeding up the processPolitics and “righteous indignation” motivated Michael Wilson to make his movie, “Michael Moore Hates America,” out of his apartment with borrowed cameras. Technology allowed him to share footage with an editor through a common server, so shooting and editing could happen simultaneously.

It was also technology, and the national response to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” that inspired David Bossie to try filmmaking as a political tool. A first-time filmmaker, he made his “Fahrenheit” rebuttal, “Celsius 41.11,” in just eight weeks.

“Digital technology made all the difference in being able to produce and distribute this film in an affordable way,” Bossie said.

Bossie, whose latest work, “Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60,” was released Nov. 11, intends to change minds with his movies.

“Documentaries that make people think and open people’s minds to a conservative political standpoint are going to have a great impact on the political process,” he says. “I may not agree with some filmmakers, but the more who do it, the more acceptable and popular it becomes as a way to influence public policy.”

Actually, nonfiction films that espouse a political perspective are nothing new, says Malcolm Spaull, a film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. “All documentaries reflect a point of view,” he says. “What’s different now is the availability of technology to everyone.”

Also, Spaull adds, the genre has been shaped by technology throughout its history. Portable film cameras inspired the “direct cinema” fly-on-the-wall approach to filmmaking that began in the late 1950s, he notes. Video cameras also had an impact on documentaries, but the quality was lacking.

“Now the technology is so ubiquitous, and it’s good enough quality, that anyone who can pick up a camera and hit the trigger can start filming and making so-called documentaries,” he says. “Technology is taking documentaries into the next phase.”

That’s good news for Greenwald, who feels “democracy is not a spectator sport.”

“Film is the language people use today,” he says.