As the new director of the Experimental College at Tufts, it’s my privilege to lead off with the first post on X, our updated blog. To this end, I want to share a few observations on something I’ve been thinking about a great deal lately: the surprising state of documentary these days.
Here at the ExCollege, for example, we’re offering a well-received course on doc theory taught by Natalie Minik, who’s a product of the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. In addition, on Sunday, October 11th, we’re co-sponsoring the Tufts premier of Codename: Pirat, a film by Erik Asch about his father, Bob, the long time director of the Tufts-in-Tubingen program, who may or may not have been a spy!
And my colleague here in the Film and Media Studies program, Khary Jones, is part of the creative team that just brought He Named Me Malala to the screen. I mention “screen” quite intentionally, because the film is currently showing at suburban multiplexes around Boston!
On a personal note, I’m in the very early stages of launching a long-form project about a breakaway Jewish congregation in Chicago, called Mishkan, that’s attempting to meld progressive politics with folk culture and ecstatic practice.
It seems to me that all of this points toward a sea change in American culture. Over the last twenty years, people have started paying attention to films other than features. Yes, it built slowly. And yes, it would be fair to say that interest has waxed and waned. And yes, it might also be fair to say that – call it what you will – this renaissance, this golden age of documentary, owes much to a bookend set of necessary evils: “reality” TV and Michael Moore. (Reality TV and Moore both warrant further discussion, but I won’t take the time now to do so.)
Equally as important, I believe the ascendance of documentary has been driven, in a fundamental manner, by the digitization of media, a phenomenon that cuts two ways.
First of all, thanks to digital cameras and editing software, shooting a documentary at a quality level that audiences will read as “professional” is now within the reach of anyone who can cobble together a few thousand dollars. Once upon a not so distant time, that figure would have been a few hundred thousand, at least.
Secondly, cable and the Internet have exponentially expanded the need for “content” (horrible word, great concept). And “content providers” – HBO, IFC, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and so on – have rushed into the breach, providing the means to promote and distribute small-budget films at a magnitude unimaginable in the 80s and 90s.
Obviously, there’s much to work through. But for me, today, I’m left with these thoughts. We have a solid enrollment in the course. Erik’s film is garnering praise around the world. There’s funding and an audience within reach for my project. And you can buy tickets for Malala at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, and Showcase Cinemas in Worcester and Woburn, five or six shows daily, every day of the week.