Last month a documentary titled 11/4/08, about that historical date of Barack Obama's election, had its world premiere at SXSW (Cinematical unveiled the poster ahead of the fest). If you saw it there -- or if you'll be seeing it this weekend at the Sarasota Film Festival -- your experience of the film was not -- or will not be -- complete. It can be considered an unfinished film, though not in the same way that other works in progress screen at film fests and markets in order to acquire additional funding and/or pre-sale distribution deals. Rather, 11/4/08 is an ongoing project that's continuing to look for additional footage that may be affixed to or otherwise supplement the film.
This documentary is similar to last week's Doc Talk spotlight, Awesome I F*ckin' Shot That, in that it was produced through "crowdsourcing," meaning that it was shot by a number of unrelated camerapersons, on assignment, and then compiled in the editing room from that footage. However, unlike Awesome, 11/4/08 might grow as more and more amateur filmmakers from around the world send in their own contributions, specifically videos shot on and depicting the Election Day of 2008. The most recently uploaded video presents a celebration of Obama's victory in Abuja, Nigeria.
Curator Jeff Deutchman (he doesn't credit himself as director) does seem to view the version shown at SXSW as a stand-alone feature film, yet 11/4/08 is primarily being labeled an experiment in interactive history. While no plan appears to exist in terms of re-working the present feature film version for future screenings, fests and distribution, there is the idea that it will a part of an organic production through the film's website. An online library of footage will be available to users through a Creative Commons license for the creation of new versions of 11/4/08 or new "film-histories" altogether.
Thinking of other examples of ongoing filmmaking, I thought of Michael Apted's Up documentaries, a series of films that probably won't be finished until all its subjects die or drop out of the project (or if Apted dies, similar to how Francois Truffaut's death put a [very likely] end to the fictional Antoine Doinel series). Interestingly enough, I later found an interview with Deutchman in which he calls his film the opposite of Apted's project. There are also a number of fiction films that go through different incarnations, whether they be called director's cuts or special editions, such as Blade Runner, E.T. and the Star Wars trilogy.
Updating or correcting the information or narratives for documentary, however, is typically done through DVD supplements or the making of a sequel, as Spike Lee is doing with a follow-up to When the Levees Broke and what Michael Moore had planned on doing for Fahrenheit 9/11 (that project either died or organically grew into a different film, Capitalism: A Love Story). Respectively, those are the equivalents of re-releasing a book with a new introduction or forward, and writing a new book about the same topic.
And then there's a film like Loose Change, which comes across as a cinematic textbook, continually updated and re-worked and re-released in new editions. I had heard of Dylan Avery's "9/11 was an inside job" documentary and dismissed it, mainly because 9/11 literally killed my youthful enthusiasm for conspiracy theories (and I was the kind of teenager who mostly owned books on cover-ups, the JFK assassination, etc.). But a classmate in a course on historiography recently brought up the phenomenon of the film, and I became more curious. Plus, it had recently been added to Netflix's Watch Instantly library.
I wasn't aware of the different versions of the film until I sat down to watch Loose Change with my girlfriend, who claimed to have seen it on YouTube and warned me that it was pretty poorly made. But she realized immediately this was a different film, or at least a more finely tuned version. And so I did what all good researches do in the beginning of learning about something; I looked at the film's Wikipedia page. As silly as that sounds, though, it turns out there is no more appropriate place to learn about an ever-changing film like Loose Change than from an ever-changing Wiki.
Loose Change originated as an idea for a fiction feature involving 9/11 conspiracy theories but evolved into an 82 minute documentary that was released online and on DVD in April 2005. Later that year, a 2nd Edition arrived due to "new information that needed to be added and improvements made" (as in the omission of certain inaccuracies). Subsequent editions, included the following year's "2nd Edition Recut," 2007's 130 minute "Final Cut," and the version (sometimes labeled as a whole new film altogether) available on Netflix, titled Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup, which premiered last fall. I will be surprised if this is the very last version to be produced and released.
Many of you likely have seen one of these incarnations, but how many of you know which version you saw? I've currently only seen An American Coup, though I went back and watched some of the 2nd Edition (I think the non-recut one) before writing this, and I'm curious to see the entire series just for the sake of my curiosity in the project's evolution. Outside of this sort of interest, though, is it okay for these older, outdated versions to be so freely available? And not just on YouTube; you can purchase DVDs of each edition through Amazon, which seems kind of like buying an obsolete edition of a textbook. Some YouTube versions even feature old comments and criticisms embedded into the film as if these versions are like used copies of textbooks that have been aggressively highlighted.
Given that new information and new debunkings of old information (especially the conspiracy theory stuff) occur all the time and will likely continue for years and years, as is the case with any historical event or topic, Loose Change could be, like 11/4/08, a continual historiographical process. And I find that incredibly fascinating. I just wonder if past generations of such works should be as erased as in past edits of a Wikipedia page -- which are not erased at all yet also not as deceptively visible in such a surficial format.
I'm sure given the subject and perspective of Loose Change -- far more than the subject/perspectives of 11/4/08 -- that some of you will think no versions of the film should exist at all. But try to keep the politics out of the comments and respond to this column as it relates to documentary craft instead.