Over the last decade, the documentary has grown in popularity and impact, affecting social and political change, as well as introducing audiences to campaigns, ideas and individuals. But just how do the makers and distributors of these films measure their success?
We live in a golden age of documentary. Worldwide, more docs are being made by more people about more subjects than ever before. The Internet has democratised distribution and marketing. Docs barely five years old—like Black Gold, The End of the Line, Burma VJ and The Age of Stupid—have become reference points for a new age of digitalised, activist filmmakers who claim some form of secular prophesy.
Some, like the late Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo and Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, use this new-found portability of film equipment to make intimate, experiential expressions of humanism that aspire, on the large part, to objectivity.
But many other documentaries forego this balance and poise to campaign for specific social issues. At their worst, these films tell us the world is going to hell in a hand basket—because of fossil fuels, intensive fishing, deforestation, super-capitalism, nuclear energy, nuclear war—before a volte-face suggesting that only if we sign up to a website, or donate money to a charity, can we avert this impending apocalypse.
Dogwoof, the leading UK film distributor of social issue films and documentaries, has been central to this ongoing trend. Purporting to be a ‘social enterprise’, they say in their manifesto: ‘Our aim is to accomplish targets that are social as well as financial—often referred to as the triple bottom line. Many commercial businesses would consider themselves to have social objectives, but Dogwoof as a social enterprise is distinctive because our social purpose remains central to our operation.’
“What we think we’re doing here is distributing good films and good stories; that is our primary aim.”
This has been the case since Black Gold, a 2006 doc about the exploitation of coffee farmers in the Third World which resulted, finally, in Starbucks changing their sustainability policies. Since then, other Dogwoof films have made an impact, like The End of the Line, which resulted in British law being changed on intensive fishing, in line with the campaign’s wishes.
Andy Whittaker, the company’s CEO says, “What we think we’re doing here is distributing good films and good stories; that is our primary aim. If you look at the history of cinema, you have your studio films and then you have your independent or art-house cinema, but if you go to film festivals these days, what the interesting films increasingly tend to be are documentaries or social issue films—very impacting, very strong stories, but also very relevant.
“I think there is a movement of good filmmakers making these films and an audience that are more engaged about their content,” Whittaker continues, “and with a bit of luck and a bit of skill we, as a distributor, are looking for these kind of stories so we can take them out to a wider audience. 10 or 20 years ago these films were seen at festivals without really hitting that wider audience, so what we believed was that if you back them up with a big campaign, they would be able to make a difference.”
But what is this difference he speaks of? How do these films measure their own success? Is it through box office number-crunching, column inches and viral presence, or through the achievement of more tangible goals, like law changes or pressure campaigns?
Anna Godas, also a CEO of Dogwoof, says, “I think our films make a massive difference because they bring an entertaining and more accessible way to raise awareness about serious issues that deserve our attention. Very often many of these issues cannot reach the consumer because they are delivered in a very charitable, boring kind of way, and people rule them out completely. But a film, and the buzz we create around films, is a much more relatable way to do it. I think they are incredibly effective about raising awareness about difficult issues.”
Alex Gibney has spent 20 years making documentaries about state-sponsored torture, governmental corruption and the political economy. It has established him as one of the world’s leading documentarians, and a commentator with the profound ability to strike at the heart of the American conscience. His forthcoming film on WikiLeaks is expected to be the final judgment on Julian Assange.
”It’s always tempting to measure success by press inches, but I try my best not to,” he says. “Mike Figgis once said, ‘Alex, don’t read reviews’, and unfortunately I haven’t followed his advice. I do read them because I’m always interested in what people have to say. But also it’s interesting to know what civilians say, and often you can judge sometimes by how quickly they respond without any kind of prompting.
“When I made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, that was a film that really hit the zeitgeist. Cab drivers were talking about it, and that was tremendously exciting because it became part of the national conversation. Taxi to the Dark Side did win an Oscar and I had a moment to talk to millions of people, but not that many people went to see it in the theatre.
But I’m hugely gratified because I had lots of people come up to me who tell me they had their minds changed, that they went in thinking one thing and came out thinking something else. And I don’t think that’s propaganda; I think the film created what I call a ‘sacred space’, that allowed people from different viewpoints to come in and experience the film and reckon with what it had to say. And now that film gets taught and is required viewing at the JAG [Judge Advocate General’s] school.”
But what of the elephant in the room—money. Eli Roth, the torture-porn provocateur of the Hostel franchise, was asked last year whether he gave a damn about criticism. “Why would I?” he responded. “We just took over $20m on the first weekend.” Does a part of Gibney—the Wall Street part, maybe—share that sentiment?
“I worked with Scorsese one time and one of my favourite films of his is King of Comedy, but Scorsese is a bit embarrassed about it because it made about two dollars at the box office,” Gibney says. “Likewise, Jonathan Demme made an amazing film—Something Wild—and that didn’t do any business at the box office.
“So you have to be aware of that, because sometimes, for mysterious reasons you can’t control, your film doesn’t immediately become part of the zeitgeist. But sometimes it comes around. You just have to really believe in your film, remain true to that, and also recognise that your first loyalty is to the viewer, not necessarily to the critic.”•