Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill’s documentary “Truth in Numbers? Everything, According to Wikipedia” delves into the truths and lies behind the web’s worldwide encyclopedia. The film is streaming on SnagFilms as part of their Midterm Madness series, that showcases fifteen issue orientated documentaries. Co-director Glosserman chatted with indieWIRE about the genesis of his film, and what he hopes to achieve by tackling such provocative subject matter.
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
Although Wikipedia is the 8th most popular website on the Internet today, and is already the 3rd most widely read ‘publication’ in human history, attracting 100 million unique visitors a month, this great social and academic experiment of our age is riddled with vandalism and challenged by skeptics, posing compelling questions about whether Wikipedia’s model can truly achieve its goal.
The film intersperses founder Jimmy Wales’ unusual rise to Internet super-stardom among the global implications of Wikipedia. Are entries factually accurate? Biased? Accountable? Does ‘Jimbo’ Wales posses the wisdom to ensure that Wikipedians aggregate knowledge correctly? [Synopsis courtesy of SnagFillms]
Co-director Scott Glosserman on why he landed into documentary filmmaking, and how his latest project came about…
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a desire to know at least a little bit about as much as I could. Filmmaking — acting, writing, directing — seemed to me to be an avenue to pursue knowledge about specific things for brief intervals. If an actor, for instance, is cast as a champion golfer, the actor is motivated to at least develop a cursorial understanding about golf in order to both empathize with the golfer, but also to ape the technical ability of the golfer.
To that end, documentaries (versus narrative features) allow me to delve much deeper into a specific subject and to, hopefully, gain a qualified understanding of it. Documentaries are dissertations for filmmakers. The most effective ones should conclude something that is original and should reflect a mastery over the subject. I enjoy those challenges.
I was introduced to the original producer, Michael Gibson, who had already conceived of this documentary and had already sent his director, Nic Hill, around the world on his credit card, following Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, and exploring the global Wikipedia community. Michael and Nic were in need of technical, creative and financial help and I was thrilled that the opportunity to partner with them fell into my lap. My company took over the project, I came on as producer and co-director, and we spent another three years putting it together. The scope of the project expanded dramatically.
Glosserman on his approach at tackling Wikipedia, and the biggest challenge he faced in bringing his documentary to the screen…
My approach started with a dinner table conversation. It didn’t take too long to put together a fundamental list of questions about Wikipedia that just about any curious layperson would ask, assuming that person understood Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. That was the extent of what I knew at the time.
It occurred to me, though, that if just about everyone online is going to Wikipedia for the truth, then the most basic question was the most important of all, and it was the seed from where everything else should grow: How does Wikipedia get at the truth?
Editing became a laborious task of free association. Vignettes would naturally appear — objectivity versus fairness, wisdom of the crowds, lying by omission, truth as an evolving result of the zeitgeist of the day — these vignettes were ever-so-slowly strung into a coherently evolving “conversation” about Wikipedia, balancing the pros and cons of the implications of you and I canonizing the sum of human knowledge for our peers.
New questions and subjects would inevitably rise — a perceived marginalization of experts in our society, for instance. So, we’d find (ironically) experts who could opine about that. In this case, Susan Jacoby, who had recently written “The Age of American Unreason,” was perfect. We tried to get people offering compelling arguments for either side of any particular topic because our intention was to be objective and to let the viewer make up his or her own mind about the merits or consequences of Wikipedia.
The biggest challenges of doing a project the way we did this one is that the script is written in the editing room. And, an open-ended freely associative editorial exploration takes a long time. The money and the time I had budgeted for editing was embarrassingly and naively insufficient.
Glosserman on what audiences will take away from his film, and on his inspirations as filmmaker…
Wikipedia is ubiquitous and, most likely, everyone in the audience will have used Wikipedia as a reference. I think they will be fascinated by what they discover in this film, regarding the endeavors to, and the complexities of delivering all of that information to them. To truly stop and think about just the sociology experiment that is Wikipedia, to me is mind-blowing.
It was incredibly difficult and, at times, incredibly disconcerting to us to be editing our documentary, knowing that we were not making a modern feature narrative doc with a three-act structure and a climax at the end, like a crosswords tournament, a spelling bee, or a student lottery. Identifying more traditional documentaries that are feature length and that are less character-driven and more information/subject-driven, that have actually performed well, wasn’t an easy task. We know because we wanted editor with that kind of experience to help!
However, “What the Bleep Do We Know” proved to us that ours could possibly work. We were sure this documentary had wrestled with some of the same narrative challenges. Their solution was to shoot a dramatic through line. “Dirt!” and “Flow” (who’s editor, Madeleine Gavin, came on board with us) were also inspirational.
And on future projects…
As far as documentaries go, I’m interested in exploring the decline of the U.S. News Media — yes, this one will be a bit more subjective — in a project tentatively titled, “Pundit.” And, I am also delving into what I view as the essential rock n’ roll rhythm, the “Bo Diddley Beat.” I’d like to trace the history and the impact of this integral tempo. Two more dissertations. Don’t expect them anytime soon…