Doc Summit Offers a New Way to Tell Stories

Filmmakers gain insight on using interactive storytelling tools.

March 27, 2014

D.C. Interactive Documentary Summit

Docs in Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsburg (far left) and host Andrew Zinnes (far left) in conversation with documentarians (seated l-r) Per Hoel, Hilary Linder, Michael Blaine and Kraskouskas at the final Peer Pitch session.

By Brittney Dunkins

More than 100 artists, writers, filmmakers and directors shared and discovered interactive storytelling techniques at a documentary summit co-hosted by the Documentary Center at the George Washington University and Docs in Progress this month.

From panel discussions on multi-platform tools to emerging business models, the two-day D.C. Interactive Documentary Summit was an open forum for documentarians to explore ways to improve their craft and consider opportunities to use new mediums for advocacy and social change.

“The web is becoming an important place for non-fiction storytelling,” Creative Director and host of the summit Andrew Zinnes, B.A. '92, said. “It offers new ways to tell stories in multiple directions, not just linearly, and provides fantastic opportunities to get your message out to a vast audience in a way that TV and DVD cannot.”

Filmmakers pitched their documentaries to an audience at a preliminary session hosted by Docs in Progress, unofficially kicking off the conference. The nonprofit was founded in 2004 by Executive Director Erica Ginsburg, B.A. '92, with the goal of supporting an inclusive community of independent filmmakers through programs and focused mentorship.

The Documentary Center has hosted screening of Docs in Progress films on campus for nearly a decade.

“Since we already have an existing relationship with The Documentary Center, it seemed fitting to hold this iteration of Peer Pitch at GW as well,” Ms. Ginsburg said. “It was great to bring together filmmakers from the Docs in Progress community with students in the Institute for Documentary Filmmaking.”

The Peer Pitch gave six filmmakers the opportunity to pitch their documentary to their peers and receive feedback on ways to enhance their central themes, narrative, presentation and audience experience.

The audience selected three documentarians to return to the final Peer Pitch and closing session of the conference, to present their films and receive a critique from Felicia Pride, founder of the Pride Collective and Community Center, and Aziz Isham, president of Arcade Sunshine Media.

Per Hoel presented “Good Work,” a documentary with a basic premise: how to live meaningfully.

Using an essay approach, the film combines live interviews and other footage to examine the culture of work in America, the meaning it provides and how it connects to modern day epidemics, including the prevalence of anxiety and depression in American society.

Mr. Hoel was praised for using feedback from the first session to add clarity to his project and strengthen his presentation.

Mr. Isham and Ms. Pride also commended him for putting a timely topic into context and recommended that he focus his ideas and use visual aids to show research on how, where and why people choose to work.

Producer and director Michael Blaine and Kiley Kraskouskas, a veteran documentarian and president of Thinking Forward Media, teamed up in 2013 to create an untitled documentary that looks at American labor culture work from a different perspective.

They presented their film which highlights the personal stories of four low-wage workers at a major corporation as they fight against poverty wages, workplace hazards and institutionalized disrespect.

As a board member of Docs in Progress and past participant in Peer Pitch, I have come to really appreciate the experience,” Mr. Kraskouskas said. “You get to gauge an audience's interest in your project, you get very good feedback in a low-pressure environment and lastly, you get to meet great people and filmmakers that you learn from.”

Hilary Linder presented the documentary “Indivisible,” which tracks cases of deportation and immigration reform legislation in the United States through the stories of three young adults fighting for citizenship.

“Knowing how to pitch your film is an essential skill for any filmmaker to develop and practice,” Ms. Linder said. “I heard wonderful things from past participants and jumped at the chance to pitch my documentary.”

Mr. Isham and Ms. Pride suggested that Ms. Linder consider interactive gaming with a first-person character that simulates the difficult experience of someone trying to accomplish simple tasks while living in the U.S. without citizenship.

Ms. Linder said that interactive tools allow films to come to life so that audiences can delve deeper into the topic, discuss different viewpoints and opinions and even take action.

Ms. Kraskouskas added that filmmakers should be discerning in their use of interactive tools and focus on enhancing the story and experience.

“If a filmmaker or media maker's goal is social change or education and your target audience is more likely to watch or engage in content in an interactive way, then it's worth pursuing,” Ms. Kraskouska said.