CATEGORIES Documentary, Music & Musicals, ThinkFilm, Home Entertainment, Columns, Cinematical Indie, Features, Columns, Cinematical
Four years after its release, I finally rented the Beastie Boys concert film Awesome; I F--kin' Shot That! The interesting thing about the film is that it was mostly shot by amateurs. 50 concertgoers were handed Hi8 cameras, and the film was compiled primarily from that grainy, shaky footage. In a way, the concept is not much different from a lot of archive-dependent documentaries, which also pick their material from content produced by others. The fact that it was more pre-planned and focused doesn't conceptually separate it from the film that could have been made from found footage shot by fans on personal cameras and phones (this type of fan-made video actually inspired the film to begin with). And like those documentaries consisting of mostly old, appropriated clips and stills, Awesome is only as good as its editing and post-production effects.
What may be distinctive about this film is that it involves crowdsourcing rather than licensing. Certainly some documentaries could gather up footage that's in the public domain or cost-free by way of fair use, but otherwise there's a matter of paying for the content employed in the film. If someone was making a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and wanted to incorporate a home video shot during the storm that you uploaded to YouTube, they'd have to at least get permission if not also (preferably) pay you for the usage. Crowdsourcing is more like Wikipedia in that it gets people to do the work for free right from the get go.
As someone who makes a living as a writer, I hate the idea of crowdsourcing. Whether it's websites getting people to contribute without compensation or Google exploiting its users through reCAPTCHA or a filmmaker employing voluntary cinematography, it all contributes to the undervaluation of certain jobs and workers. Even self-serve check outs infuriate me for similar reasons. The title of Awesome acknowledges its nonpayment to those who helped make the film. The common idea that tasks can be sourced to fans and hobbyists by promise of some credit and the ability to say they were a part of it. It's actually worse than the films that charge people to be extras, because those scenarios at least tend to be for charity.
I'm surprised that in the four years since Awesome there haven't been more examples of consumer-created or crowdsourced documentaries, whether concert films or otherwise. Many films have been compiled from amateur-shot material, such as Trouble the Water, and some have been compiled from footage shot by multiple camerapersons, like Burma VJ (which is also distributed by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch's Oscilloscope label). The latter could be viewed as a user-generated documentary in that it's a collaboration of more than 30 video journalists, but it's not on the level of what I expect from filmmakers in an age dominated by social media and the increasing dependence by news networks on viewer-supplied content.
A year after the release of Awesome, we reported on the concept of "open source movies," which Patrick Walsh described as being "like the film version of Wikipedia." They didn't seem to catch on with the mainstream, nor did the "MySpace Movie," Faintheart, which likely had democratically generated-entertainment problems similar to the bland movies that came out of Project Greenlight. Some user-generated film issues could be faulted on the necessity for most fiction films to need a more cohesive structure. And while I do think cinematic equivalents to Choose Your Own Adventure books are a good idea, such projects would work better as interactive content than consumer-created content.
Non-fiction film is more suited to this kind of collaborative production for the same reason that Wikipedia works: it's about multiple contributions of information rather than narrative. While feature documentary that's more about the storytelling than the facts or arguments continue to thrive theatrically, the sort of old-fashioned non-fiction films that function primarily as historical document or delivery systems for informative or instructional content could easily be adapted to the Wikipedia model, If only it were as easy to work with open source video on the web as it is to work with text with a Wiki.
Of course, like most user-generated content, true user-generated documentaries could hardly be profitable, and therefore I must at least congratulate Adam Yauch and the other Beastie Boys for succeeding in making such a commercial example -- albeit one that required a certain level of directorial and editorial management, as well as unplanned aftereffects to keep the tedium of the project to a minimum. The DVD of the film does include a bonus feature allowing you to watch all the footage simultaneously -- up to 50 little screens spread out over your TV -- but the next step (and one we'll likely have some day) is to have a feature that permits the viewer to compile his own version of Awesome by remixing this footage.
The multiple angle feature on DVDs, which functions in this exact way, has been around for a long time. And it was even utilized well for Criterion's Beastie Boys Video Anthology DVD -- which further makes it odd that there wasn't at least some implementation of the idea for the Awesome disc (no way there'd be capability for 50 angles, but maybe three selected camera choices?). A film that was shot by the fans and could be edited by the fans in their own way would be almost completely a consumer-created product.
Because there are a number of relatively underground open source documentary projects out there -- most of which I and our readers are unaware of. And because people will surely disagree with me on the topics of crowdsourcing. And because many people know more about the concepts of user-generated and open source media than I do. Comment away down below and let this week's Doc Talk begin.