How New Cinema is the New Docs and Journalism
Friday, the 13th, 6.30 pm and for half an hour we’ve been patiently waiting for the golden hour. It’s that half hour of dusk to die for, the moment when the the sun basks the earth in virtual gold.
As the sun begins its descent, it’s become a metaphor for a new dawn, of an era in journalism storytelling that is imperceptibly changing. It will take three Oscar nominations, one of them a winner, and six years on, for many others to see.
The golden hour is a good distraction because for roughly four hours, for several days, we’ve been cooped in a room with no windows. There, we’ve been listening, watching with a sense of disbelief as young filmmakers and grads, whose studies have been interrupted, re-tell their stories of the unspeakable.
The average age in the room is around 26-years. There is stone-cold silence when people speak; their pauses occasionally punctuated by tears and sobs. But remarkably, in these dark moments, there is room for moments of joy, and relief to share.
I’ve travelled to a location four hours drive from Aleppo, Syria, at the instructions of a human right’s lawyer to observe and train young Syrian filmmakers in a new story form.
Grounded in deep practical and theoretical research, including my PhD at University College Dublin, this find will consume six years of my life,100,000 words, copious films, more than 150 official, (200 total interviews such as the great Robert Drew behind direct cinema, The Imposter’s Dimitri Doganis, Danfung Dennis etc. and scouring the planet journos from Russia, China, India and Africa.
Later, Marwoun and I will frame our Syrian story at the major International Journalism Festival in Perugia. Our event, to our surprise, sells out.
Mention “Syria” and it’s enough to turn many people off. You might even be thinking of ending this read right here, but finally, finally a film of epic proportion, tipped to win an Oscar, is about to become part of your conscious. It’s like nothing else, but in effect it is, and this article might give you an insight.
Narrative, as old as the hills, underpins how we share and understand events. It’s not universally understood and today comes at a price, commodified by largely a Western industry to make profit. Its stability depends on its form as replicable as genres which must be readily identifiable to sell newspaper daily stories, the radio and TV story package and the reporter or reporter less documentary.
In essence, traditional media’s narrative, particularly, “Western” teaches us generally how to tell stories in defined ways. But once every rare moon eclipse, something happens. Outliers break the media’s traditional discourse at storytelling in such a powerful way that its subjects catch world attention. It requires a long view of many years, rather than close inspection, to reveal this new event horizon.
The simplest analogy I can give is the disruption to classic traditional art in the 19th century. Before the 1870s realistic depictions of events in representative proportions and perspective reigned supreme.
Whether it was Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Hogarth’s Rake or Native American sculptor, Edmonia Lewis’ work, if you wanted to show your work on the most illustrious stage, then you would be required to follow the rules of France’s powerful art body the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Then in the 1870s a small group of artists would upend this. They would derogatorily be known as the “Impressionist”. They, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, and Morisot, to name a few, would set a new creative style. A new Western form was disrupting a classical form.
Impressionism was roundly scorned for twenty years plus, before its freshness gained wide spread popularity. My research indicates, that against the weight of traditional media, we’re at a similar 1870 moment.
Modern green shoots can be found in the mind-blowing 2012 film To Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis.
Dennis, a photojournalist, dropped into an edge-of-seat conflict between US forces and the Taliban. He’d rigged his DSLR to a purpose built steady cam. Nominated for an Oscar, he would win every other doc award the film was entered.
Then there’s the incredible Travis Fox, a photographer and newspaper journalist who used an array of video cameras, drones and mobile filming for the Washington Post (see short film below).
Snowdon’s Citizen Four, by Laura Poitras is captivating. Its exec producer Steven Soderbergh, behind Sex, Lies and Videotape and the Oceans‘s trilogy, comes as no surprise.
Amongst more than three dozen creators I interviewed and studied their work, as well as, hundreds of executives I interviewed, two characteristics surface:
- The innovators were all award-winners. To Hell and Back’s director, Danfung Dennis was nominated for an Oscar. Citizen Four won an Oscar. Travis Fox has won many Emmys.
- They were using cinema, and art to tell their stories that rendered their films unpredictable, that is beyond the realms of normative journalism films and they openly talked about their cinema influences.
- Several were video journalists feeding the juggernaut of news and were unorthodox from the go in disrupting news’ archetypal story package. Note their definition of using cinema is a complex one. There is no one-size fits all, but the patterning is obvious and their films rivetting.
The present film that achieves this feat in a monumental way is For Sama by Waad al-Kateab — a brutal, searing, empathetical, epic cinema of a personalised essay. For Sama is tipped for an Oscar .
For its maker, this breakthrough, will not be lost on her. Its content, finally, has caught global attention where politicians and mainly Western audiences have shown apathy, if not entirely ignored. And as brilliant as any correspondent has been risking their lives covering Syria, this is a story by a Syrian, about Syria.
The group I meet near the Syrian border will be cheering the loudest.
The obvious question for this genre that gets asked is, well doc makers have been using cinema techniques for a while. This is different and from my research, it goes beyond videojournalists and doc makers. The other thing is incredulity that anyone dare cite cinema as a bona-fide factual genre.
For historical knowledge you can go back and engage with text on Dziga Vertov, and Robert Drew circa 1960s. For contemporary comparisons, TikTok re-opens the eclecticism super-fly guy of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Alas, though there is no essence of cinema. It’s framed by several characteristics, and wrapped up in different cultures e.g. Neorealism, Third Wave, or styles of its protagonists.
Waad’s ultimate success, you hope, should give a window of opportunity to others, such as the young Syrians I meet that Waad knows when I show her a picture. Similarly, other narrative structures should be on the table. That is the diverse richness in storytelling.
This aesthetic disruption from art and cinema is not confined to visual storytelling. In the last five years in particular, audio productions in podcasts e.g. Serial, Shreds, The Tunnel, George the Poet have led a rallying call for this new cinema form.
George the Poet the winner of the British Podcast Awards is like nothing you would get on radio. It’s like Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich”, with the cleverness of Victor Lewis Smith’s Saturday morning R4’s Loose Ends where he overlapped several voices. But it’s sicker!
But if signs of a different more innovative way emerges as happenstance and you figure can easily be ignored, you’re in for a rude awakening about the threats ahead.
The biggest threat to genres, patterned media, closing in on us is AI. It’s simple. Once deep learning configures a style, it becomes easily replicable. The result is the huge threat to traditional bolt-down style journalism and what it renders. Current trends, which in the AI age are the bare minimum suggest traditional journalism will overwhelmingly be conducted by algorithms. It’s already started.
Creative, artistic factual cinema, whether it’s used in journalism, branding or historical content is difficult to mimic, because it can be so intensely personal, inviting abstraction and symbolism that breaks norms.
It might easily be lost on you too because it fails to adhere to your own projected sense of story. In his Nobel address Kazuo Ishiguro makes a plea. Storytelling must invite diversity. Journalism too. At the very least as an excursion into story where different styles and approaches yield fresh revelations, and a sense of surprise. You could call that art. You wouldn’t be wrong.
By its nature it’s disruptive. My experience making films with a camera that stretches to thirty years informs me that there is a synergy. between tech (equipment) and knowledge of film making. This from Jon Snow when I was a freelance producer at Channel 4 News in until 2000
Which brings me full circle — catching that golden moment. As our meeting winds down and participants prepare to go back home, a number of treasurable moments, of men, bracing each other as they bid each other goodbye heading back into their towns e.g. Aleppo.
Many stories remain untold, at the time of filming this. One of the men being embraced is holding onto hope. His brother, also a filmmaker, was picked up by people unknown. The evidence of his last moments lies in this camera, but his family are having difficulty retrieving film from the camera’s damaged hard drive. How do you tell this story, when one of the main characters is this? Stories matter in how we see our world. It’s up to the new actors to shape this.
As a former Artist in Residence at the Southbank Centre David invited the award winning filmmaker and author of The Story of Film, to evaluate his work. He had this to say.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah is a creative technologist, International Award Winning Innovator in Journalism, and Videojournalist. His media career includes working for BBC, ABC News and Channel 4 News. He’s behind the International Award winning cinema journalism film, “8 Days”, how UK newspapers revolutionised the media. He’s currently an advisor for the British Library’s 2021 News Exhibition. He’s a lecturer at Cardiff in areas of emerging journalism and AI. Gyimahd@cardiff.ac.uk