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DOCS MONTHLY | The Doc Blogs: Part of a Thriving Online Film Community

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire March 28, 2007 at 5:36AM

Ever wonder how the term "blog" was coined? Most people know it comes from the word "weblog", which was first used by Jorn Barger back in December of '97, but the shortened version came into use when Peter Merholz cleverly turned "weblog" into "we blog" in the sidebar of his brilliant Peterme.com in 1999. Since blogs as we know them have only existed for about a decade, it's remarkable that the number of people maintaining a personal website is expected to reach about 100 million this year, according to Gartner Research. It's not surprising then, that there are now blogs about every subject imaginable and then some - from robots to supernatural phenomena to brownies - and yes, even documentary film.
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Ever wonder how the term "blog" was coined? Most people know it comes from the word "weblog", which was first used by Jorn Barger back in December of '97, but the shortened version came into use when Peter Merholz cleverly turned "weblog" into "we blog" in the sidebar of his brilliant Peterme.com in 1999. Since blogs as we know them have only existed for about a decade, it's remarkable that the number of people maintaining a personal website is expected to reach about 100 million this year, according to Gartner Research. It's not surprising then, that there are now blogs about every subject imaginable and then some - from robots to supernatural phenomena to brownies - and yes, even documentary film.

Before the word "blog" was even part of our digital vernacular, The D Word was launched by director Doug Block as one of the first filmmaker blogs ever - one he originally started as an online diary about the making of his doc "Home Page". "The film followed the progress of a number of online diarists..." Block told indieWIRE, "including Justin Hall, who is now officially credited as the net's first blogger. It seemed like a good way to understand my subjects better, and I found it an exciting experiment to share both the joy and angst of the filmmaking process in the middle of it all. I wound up keeping the blog going for 4 years, but tired of it after the first year of the film's distribution in 1999."

The D Word then evolved into a virtual community, creating a space for documentary filmmakers online that was clearly waiting to be filled. "More than 7 years later," says Block, "and purely by word-of-mouth, we have almost 2,000 registered members from 78 countries." The site features a Community section that is strictly for documentary professionals, as well as a public forum designed for those interested in documentary film or looking for some mentorship. "It's also where we've hosted special week-long doc conferences with guest experts for many years..." says Block. "We're in the midst of a major re-design of The D-Word, and our biggest future plans are for expanding the public area."

Blogging certainly has evolved in its short history, with bloggers now routinely incorporating video, audio, and podcasting into their sites. At Docs That Inspire, Austin-based founder Joel Heller provides excellent coverage of the doc scene at key film festivals, as well as director interviews, much of which is offered in podcast form, either audio or video. North of the border, The Documentary Blog, run by Jay Cheel and Sean Dwyer, has its own podcast which offers offbeat discussions of documentaries as well as a series detailing the struggles Cheel encounters while creating his own nonfiction film.

Several doc bloggers are (at least for now) sticking to text entries with hyperlinks accompanied by lots of imbedded images - seemingly to great success. Agnes Varnum provides a lighthearted yet highly informed approach to covering the documentary scene on her blog, and offers plenty of links and resources for filmmakers to boot - from tips on getting distribution to making money online with your movies. Like Varnum, AJ Schnack seems to be almost everywhere at once, and writes about his doc adventures on his excellent blog entitled All These Wonderful Things.

"When I first started the blog, it wasn't really targeted," Schnack told indieWIRE. "I was just using it as an outlet to write about anything that struck my fancy. But eventually, it sort of began focusing on independent filmmaking and, more narrowly, nonfiction filmmaking. At the time, I hadn't yet discovered Sarah Jo Marks' or Agnes' blogs, and although there were good resources for doc makers, such as Doug Block's D-Word, it didn't really feel like there was a public, newsy site that focused on nonfiction. Most of the nonfiction news was coming from indieWIRE."

"Now... it feels like a really exciting moment," says Schnack, "because it really has come from the ground up, without any coordination or organization behind it. So that community is really nice, but it's definitely connected me in a larger way to the greater doc community. I'm always surprised when I meet people that I really respect and they tell me that they love the blog. I guess I still get surprised that so many people read it."

The aforementioned Sarah Jo Marks, blogger at Documentary Insider, agrees: "The online doc community is really fantastic," Marks told indieWIRE. "At True/False this year we jokingly referred to ourselves as the Doc Bloggers Alliance... What's so great about blogging is we keep finding each other. We rely on one another for news if we can't make it to a festival or screening... Everyone brings something else to the table. Podcasting, behind the scenes stuff, filmmaker perspective, distribution, fair use, we're all really working together without trying; we're just all doing different stuff."

While others cover the documentary scene, the Docs Interactive blog provides resources for the working documentary filmmaker, and is designed as a supplement to Docs in Progress. Founded by Washington DC-area filmmakers Adele Schmidt and Erica Ginsberg, Docs in Progress focuses on helping filmmakers develop their work, while enlightening the public about documentary film. The organization offers screenings of works-in-progress every other month, where visiting filmmakers and audiences discuss the work together in a constructive and supportive atmosphere.

And let's not forget about some of the fine doc-focused blogs housed right here on indieWIRE, including Steve Rosenbaum's Docu-Blog/Steve's POV. Although there is a lot about documentary film in the blog, Rosenbaum also offers his unique take on everything from Web 2.0 to the fate of television as we know it. Amy King, Associate Director of SILVERDOCS, provides her own fresh perspective on the world of documentary film on King Blog, managing to incorporate welcome doses of humor while writing about festivals, seminars, and things in the news of interest to doc makers and lovers.

Also housed on indieWIRE's servers are blogs by Scott Westphal-Solary and Morgan Spurlock, both of which generally focus more on the filmmakers' work, and the wild rollercoaster ride that goes along with making a documentary film. Readers got to follow Westphal-Solary's three year journey from the early stages of his project "All God's Children" through to its recent completion - with an honest look at all the struggles in between. Spurlock's fascinating story has also played out on his blog for the past three years, from touring the festival circuit with "Super Size Me" to his appearance on "Oprah" to the explosion of his "30 Days" TV series - and the many ups and downs along the way.

So where is this vibrant online doc community headed? "I think it's clearly moving towards online distribution and exhibition of documentary content," says Block, who also maintains a personal blog called Around the Block: Doug Block's Doc Blog. "And I think creative collaboration across geographical boundaries will be increasingly viable. A lot of smart folks are searching for a paradigm of online distribution that combines the best aspects of successes like YouTube and MySpace within a serious documentary framework, where it's not just a playpen for self-promotion or goofing around." Stay tuned...

This article is related to: Documentary