See the Future of Documentary As Journalism With Two New Shorts

By  · Published on October 1st, 2015

Field of Vision

It’s not really appropriate to label Field of Vision the future of anything, because it’s already here. It’s the now of of documentary as journalism, and that’s a fitting way of putting it for the additional reason that many of its films are so immediately produced. One, a nine-minute spotlight on the Syrian refugee crisis titled Notes from the Border, was shot as recent as the end of August and is already available to watch online.

Field of Vision is the name of the new “filmmaker-driven visual journalism film unit” that produced and is now showcasing Notes from the Border. The unit was created and is led by Oscar-winning documentarian Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), filmmaker and Cinema Eye Honors co-founder AJ Schnack (director of the essential primary election doc Caucus) and former Hot Docs programmer Charlotte Cook.

Following a theatrical presentation last weekend at the New York Film Festival, they’ve officially launched their platform to stream as many as 50 short films over the course of a year. The first two are now available there, on a part of The Intercept, a website started in 2014 by Poitras, journalist Glenn Greenwald (who you may know thanks to Citizenfour) and investigative reporter and filmmaker Jeremy Scahill (Dirty Wars) aimed at delivering “fearless, adversarial journalism.”

It may be strange to think of urgency with documentary, given that so many films take years to produce and distributed and can’t possibly be so quickly delivered to audiences. A lot of docs are showing the capability for faster turnaround, though, such as in the cases of Sundance premieres of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer and The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz and others occurring before the first anniversaries of their main events.

But last year’s NYFF debut of Poitras’s Citizenfour proved that a doc could take its time and still seem immediate. The premiere was attended by reporters expecting the feature to break news, and it indeed delivered in spite of the revelations having been filmed more than a year prior. Citizenfour isn’t about breaking news, though, and I actually consider it closer to many historicizing films that take us beyond the headlines for the bigger picture on news topics (i.e. Charles Ferguson’s No End In Sight and Inside Job) than to news reportage.

Similarly, the Field of Vision shorts that follow Citizenfour as part of its legacy are somewhere between news and long-form, long-lead journalism. So far, I’ve only seen the inaugural docs available online, as I couldn’t be in New York for Sunday’s screening of five shorts plus parts of a new series by Poitras (see a report from that even on our sister site, Nonfics). And these first two, while tonally quite different from each other, are both just what I’ve wanted from this kind of outlet.

While inspired by past programs like World in Action in the UK and Life magazine’s productions that spawned Drew Associates and the Direct Cinema movement in the US, the comparison I keep considering is with the New York Times Op-Docs division. In fairness, Op-Docs are supposed to be more like editorials – opinionated documentaries over harder journalism videos found elsewhere from the news organization, but the Op-Docs page has also in the past hosted such significant shorts as Poitras’s The Program. Mostly, though, it’s a platform for promotional clips and accessories to new feature films in the guise of original material.

As far as I’m aware, nothing we see from Field of Vision will be just a piece of something else. Filmmakers might contribute something with a similar theme or subject matter to what they’ve done in the past or will do in the future – Notes from the Border, for instance, goes well with director Iva Radivojevic’s brilliant 2014 feature, the Poitras-produced Evaporating Borders (one of the best of SXSW last year) – but these are for the most part works that are exclusive to this venture.

What Notes from the Border does on its own is provide a very timely cinematic experience of the European migrant crisis, the seriousness of which isn’t adequately covered through words in a newspaper and the scope of which isn’t adequately represented by a single image, like last month’s photograph of a drowned three-year-old Syrian boy that received an enormous amount of attention. Combining a human-interest focus on one individual Radivojevic follows in his journey with broader expositional text, the short provides us with a very memorable and concise profile of the people and the issue together.

Watch Notes from the Border here:

That short and the other firstly available film, God is an Artist, are the work of film auteurs as much as they’re the work of journalists. Their names in the end credits are more like signatures than bylines, and their distinctive approaches are reflective of their personal touch. The latter is even more subjective, basically a documentary of director Dustin Guy Defa’s thoughts on the content he’s sharing with us but not exactly in an editorializing manner.

The content – spotlights on street artist Shepard Fairey’s arrest and the rise of The Satanic Temple, both of which were big news stories for Detroit back in July – is one thing, a look at rebels in the artists refuge formerly known as the Motor City, the people shot in devilishly red tones by indie film darling Sean Price Williams (Alex Ross Perry’s regular DP). And Defa’s commentary is another, and then together they form an appropriately artistic engagement with the viewer and the relatively recent subject matter.

Watch God is an Artist here:

For a peek at the varied subjects and approaches of Field of Vision shorts to come, there are brief teasers on the site for Heloisa Poissas’s Birdie and Karollyne, Kirsten Johnson’s The Above and Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s Peace in the Valley. These and others will debut online, one per week, through November with another group (season) arriving in 2016. They are the future of documentary as journalism, and with their promise established by Notes from the Border and God is an Artist, we have a very positive outlook on what’s to come.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.