Non-linear: The New Advocacy Storytelling Model

By Andrew Zinnes


One of the frustrating issues with documentary film is that the medium is finite. You have eighty minutes max to get your story/messages out and generally the latter comes in small doses so as not to turn off the lay viewer. Troubling – especially when you have a complex subject matter that deserves greater attention in order to explain a situation properly. But with the cable outlets wanting wacky towing company shows or fisherman surviving deadly situations, it’s hard to imagine something like Gasland getting more than its two sequels. Yes, you can do world tours of your project and have bonus material up on your website or on your soon to be obsolete DVD, but this feels so last decade. And with granting institutions demanding new and innovative outreach campaigns, what is a filmmaker to do?

Last November, I took the Documentary Summit to Toronto and one of the eye opening discussions involved filmmaker Manfred Becker showing us his online transmedia project that looked at homelessness in Canada. In it, Manfred had several short documentary films that followed certain people as they attempted to get off the street, but within the program, one could learn various statistics about the homeless situation in their own city or across Canada. There were calls to action, such as petition signing opportunities that would help motivate politicians and communities. It was incredibly cool – and the fact that the Canadian government was sponsoring it was even cooler. I wondered how long it would take for something like this to come to the States. Not long it turns out.

Last month at our New Orleans Documentary Summit, I met filmmaker Luisa Dantas who worked for many years with Robert Greenwald on his advocacy film projects. Luisa is in the process of making a film about New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina called Land of Opportunity (trailer above). One of the challenges she faces involves how she could handle such a humongous, widespread topic in the span of a feature doc timeframe. With the help of Mozilla and a program called Popcorn, Luisa is doing something similar to Becker’s piece. In a completely online space, she is able to have her feature film running and then when a specific topic comes up during the film – say levee repair – the viewer can click on other information about the levees that are contained within the project. So there might be pictures of the levees being fixed or a short film that someone else did about the water damage done when the levees broke. There could be a call to action of some kind as well. And all the while, the original documentary sits in the background paused, ready to continue when you’ve had your fill of levee information. It’s like a museum exhibit kiosk where you find your own path through the information or reading an article online with loads of links in it. It’s completely non-linear. And if you really want a cool twist, you can compare two events to each other. So Luisa has pictures of New Orleans a month after Hurricane Katrina hit and in timeline just under it, there are pictures to New Jersey one month after Hurricane Sandy came through. With a simple toggle you can see if we’ve done any better with disaster relief. And you can add to these timelines indefinitely. That is a granting organization’s nirvana.

On July 20-21, 2013 we are holding our second San Francisco Documentary Summit. As usual, we will be looking at documentary filmmaking in a practical sense, but this time around there will be bent toward advocacy filmmaking and the issues surrounding them. We will look at their legal/ethical issues as well as balancing story and message, but what really excites me is looking into non-linear storytelling. Finally, the filmmaker and the granting org can be satisfied. But more importantly, it opens up huge potential for merging between tech and filmmaking – two usually disparate groups. It means more exciting projects, more jobs for filmmakers and outreach limited only by internet connection.  I’m thrilled we’re going to bring these two arenas together in a way that can really help change the world. 


Andrew Zinnes is US Editor of The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook US Edition and the co-author for The Documentary Filmmakers Handbook. Andrew is the Creative Director for Filmmaker Junction and oversees their signature events, The Documentary Summit and Crime Series Interactive. Prior to this, Andrew worked in development for producers Norman Lear (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) and Donald DeLine (THE ITALIAN JOB) as well as USA Networks (HELEN OF TROY). Andrew received his Masters in Film from The American University in Washington DC.