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Oscar Winner Laura Poitras on How Field of Vision Will Change Documentary Filmmaking

Oscar Winner Laura Poitras on How Field of Vision Will Change Documentary Filmmaking

Yesterday news broke that Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” filmmaker Laura Poitras, former Hot Docs director of programming Charlotte Cook and filmmaker and Cinema Eye co-founder AJ Schnack have teamed up to form a new documentary platform with plans to commission 40-50 short-form documentaries a year.

READ MORE: Indiewire’s Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking

Developed in collaboration with First Look Media and the journalism web site The Intercept, Field of Vision will highlight the work of both new and established filmmakers and will launch at the 53rd Annual New York Film Festival on September 27, 2015 with Poitras’ “Asylum,” an episodic, short-form series tracking WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as he publishes diplomatic cables and seeks asylum in London’s Ecuadorian embassy.

Following its festival premiere, the first season of Field of Vision will launch online on September 29 with one film shared per week through November. A second season will debut in early 2016. The first two seasons will feature new works by Kirsten Johnson, Heloisa Passos, Iva Radivojevic, Michael Moore, Shola Lynch, Yung Chang, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, Beau Willimon, Dustin Guy Defa, Jarred Alterman, Jill Magid, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega and others to be announced in coming months.

Indiewire spoke by phone with Poitras and separately with Cook and Schnack to learn more about the new site and what it means for filmmakers. Below are their responses edited only for length.

Congratulations! How did this all come about?

Laura Poitras (LP): The background is that originally when Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill and I decided to team up [on The Intercept], I really wanted to bring visual journalism and how video can tell news and also help us understand the world in a different kind of a way. And we can look at examples of something like Abu Ghraib prison, which would never be a story without those photographs. And so I’m passionate about that and I was really eager to build a commissioning unit. And so when I finished “Citizenfour,” I reached out to AJ to see if he’d be interested, and then Charlotte. They’re just extraordinary in terms of their knowledge of the field and nonfiction storytelling, and also just know how to put their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening and who’s doing what. So, we decided to team up to form this and will be commissioning work and on some occasions we’ll be producing or directing.

How would you describe the difference between visual journalism as opposed to short form documentary?

AJ Schnack (AS):  We’re going to try to respond more quickly than we sometimes think about in terms of documentary, where we can often spend years and years digging into a subject. In this case, we want to be able to be reactive and see that something’s happening in the world and that it’s something we feel that a filmmaker’s voice and eye will capture and explain in a way that other kinds of media can’t. So, I think journalism is sort of at the heart of what we think of for the project. Documentary can be journalism, but isn’t always. But in this case, I think we sort of come to it from a perspective, I think our references of Life Magazine and World in Action are ways of saying that we want to capture the world in a different way, as it’s happening. 

We are working with not just filmmakers, but photojournalists and data visualization artists and artists in general to really look at how we are talking about the world in an artistic way. It’s very important to us that we’re really blending cinematic language and journalism together and trying to maybe give a different narrative on stories. 

Obviously, the films will be available online, but are you also considering some sort of theatrical or TV outlets as well?

Charlotte Cook (CC): Yeah, we’re really interested in whatever works best for the film, so if we have a film that’s definitely going to work the festival circuit, then we’ll obviously want to do that. If we have a film that maybe should be put on a different platform, or be distributed in a different way, we’re totally open to that. So, we’re going on a film-by-film basis, and we’re very filmmaker friendly, that’s kind of the goal. All of us wanted to move forward on a project that was very filmmaker-friendly, and two of the three of us are filmmakers, that’s very much in the forefront of our mind, like, “What is the best way to get this film out into the world?”

LP: We’ve been careful to communicate that what we’re not doing a development fund so people can go into the field to make money for their feature. We really want to focus energy into short form, so with that said, if there’s a project that we think could develop into something longer, and the filmmaker wanted to team up, then we will create a process for that. We can talk about that as a possibility.

And then, are you actively pursuing filmmakers or are they going to be approaching you, or a little bit of both?

AS: Well, so far we’ve been actively pursuing, because it wasn’t public. So in a lot of cases, we were going to filmmakers with an idea and saying, “Is this something you’d be interested in going and making a film about?” I think it will be a mix between assignments where we do kind of that same thing, and I’m sure we’ll hear from filmmakers who have an idea. We don’t want to be repurposing completed work, but someone might be working on a film they won’t be done with for three or four years, but there’s a piece that they’re working on right now that they feel should get out sooner, which is kind of what happened with Laura’s film that she published at [The New York Times] Op-Docs. She was still working on what would become “Citizenfour.” So we’re open to that kind of thing as well from filmmakers, if there’s something they feel like, “This needs to get out now.” 

And will you be open to pitches from filmmakers maybe you haven’t worked with before?

LP: Absolutely. We’re really interested in really trying to commission broadly. Charlotte’s really passionate about working with international filmmakers, so yeah, that’s our aim, is to have a broad community of voices. 

And then, how will it work in terms of length of content, or even structure? Will it be varied?

LP: Absolutely, it’s going to be varied, and the structure is also going to be varied. We’re super excited about doing things around thematic ideas. We’re interested in assigning filmmakers to stories that we hear about or that we have access to. We’re interested in episodic, so that’s all that range, and then in terms of running time, it will vary. One of the things that drew us to doing short form was the idea of being able to work a bit quicker than we do in long form, and sets I think a space that’s really exciting, and that we all feel strongly about.

You’ll be commissioning filmmakers so they’ll actually be paid for their projects.

CC: Yeah. It’s really important to us that we actually pay what the film cost to make. So our budgets really reflect that, and we’re working with filmmakers to really make sure ahead of time that they are budgeting in the right way and we are paying them for that.

LP: Yeah, we’re super committed to making sure that filmmakers are compensated for their time. And I think that that’s really important to us. So, we’re doing budgets that reflect that. So each project comes in, we review the budget and sign off on it.

Will there be a political component or a political agenda?

LP: Absolutely no agenda. As filmmakers, we have tools to tell stories, or to tell the news through images. So that’s our leaning, to be able to publish things that are really exploring the possibility of nonfiction short form. And so that’s our one unifying theme that we want to do. And then we’re really interested in doing things where we’re teaming up writers with filmmakers to tell stories together.

Do you anticipate breaking news?

LP: We’re open to everything. So, of course if I film something and I feel like it should be published soon, then we will publish it quickly. So, I think that’s one of the range of things that we’re absolutely open to. I was in that situation three years ago, where I was working on long form film, but I was telling a story that had a certain urgency, so I ended up releasing an interview with Edward Snowden before I finished the film, and there was an urgency around that because he had made the decision to come forward. So we’re completely open to all forms of visual journalism, including things like data journalism. I mean there are people at The Intercept like Josh Begley who’s been doing incredible visual journalism – data journalism, where how do you translate a lot of data into something that people can understand. And we’re interested in how we can contribute to that as well.

How will the three of you collaborate? Are you dividing responsibilities?

LP: We’re definitely co-creators, collaborators on the project. This is a joint thing that we’re undertaking and the structure is that we’ll be able to commission among us, so we can greenlight projects among the three of us. And I think that we each have certain interests, so we’ll follow those interests and strengths. For instance, Charlotte has been programming international films and has a real handle on that and passion for that, so I imagine she’ll go in that direction. I’ve been doing things that maybe more move in a news direction. Projects that come in that go into that lane, maybe those are ones that I’ll take more of a lead on, but we’re really working with filmmakers that we have huge respect for, and what we’re doing is we’re giving a commission and saying like, “Okay, go and do your work.” We’re not trying to micromanage projects. 

Who do you envision in terms of the audience?

CC: It’ll go beyond the documentary world I think in the fact that we’re really trying to cover topical stories stories that speaks to a bigger subject matter. I’m really hoping anybody can be kind of interested in what’s happening in the world, whether that would be through the documentary form, through journalism, through just news in general, we’ll see that we’re all trying to show something from a different perspective, which I think people are interested in. I think in a world where a lot of things are aggregated or come through different ways of narrowing the content that you see, I think people are open to seeing something presented in a very different way.

What element of this new venture is most exciting to you?

CC: It’s being able to experiment and play, not only with the form itself, but also within a news environment. And also, experimenting with exhibition. I’ve been very interested for so long in how people watch stuff, why they watch what they watch, and how they watch what they watch. I think the fact that we can be so nimble, and not bound by schedules, or anything like that, it’s really exciting to be able to really play with that and look at how people engage with the documentary form. I think that’s incredibly exciting to me.

AS: I used to run a music video company a long time ago, and one of my favorite things about that was getting to work with a variety of different directors and talking to them about what their visions for something was, and then being part of a team that brought that vision to life. And so, being part of the documentary community as all three of us have been over the past decade, I think it’s very exciting to me and to all of us that there’s an opportunity here to work with people who we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to work with on this level before, to encourage filmmakers to pursue their best and their weirdest ideas. That is something I’m incredibly excited about. 

LP: I think to see what people come back with, in terms of ideas and I mean I think it’s a really exciting time. It’s kind of a bit of a cliché, but the digital age does shift how we consume information, how we consume news, and I’m really curious to see what filmmakers do with this space. And we’re really interested in exploring ideas and taking risks, and the whole range of projects that I’m really excited about. So, to me I think it’s about expanding how nonfiction storytelling happens. That’s, to me, what I’m most excited about, seeing if we can engage, support and foster people doing innovative work.

READ MORE: Laura Poitras on ‘Citizenfour,’ the Most Dangerous Work She’s Ever Done

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