For ‘Citizenfour’ director Laura Poitras, a bold new platform for documentary film
Most directors who win an Oscar follow a well-trod path: They entertain new offers from producers and financiers or they look to jumpstart their own long-gestating film project.
“Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras has gone in a rather different direction. After she took the documentary prize in February for her examination of Edward Snowden and U.S. government surveillance, she decided to try something few filmmakers undertake: become an entrepreneur.
Poitras and the documentary-world veterans Charlotte Cook and AJ Schnack have created Field of Vision, a company that will commission short-form documentaries and make them available for free streaming on its website.
On Sunday night, when the first bloc of movies premieres at the New York Film Festival, Field of Vision will announce itself as a bold if by no means certain venture: a platform for new and often timely documentary work that stands apart from more established venues such as PBS, HBO and Netflix.
“I love long-form documentaries, so I don’t think the form needs to be reinvented,” Poitras said Saturday in the office of her production company overlooking the Hudson River with Cook, Schnack and a number of their filmmakers. “But there’s a shift in how we consume media and stories. I don’t think creative people should be bound by one format.”
To execute that mission, between 10 and 17 films, a new one each week, will go live on the Field of Vision site through December in what the founders are calling a “season,” with a new batch offered again beginning in early 2016. They compare their goal to that of Life Magazine in its heyday -- a visually minded window into global crises and stories.
The company’s efforts are funded by First Look Media, the independent outfit created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. First Look also funds the Intercept, the online journalism site that Poitras co-founded with “Citizenfour” subject Glenn Greenwald and fellow investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. There will be no advertising on the site.
Many of the Field of Vision films will be one-offs. Where there are multiple chapters -- as with Heloisa Passos’ “Birdie,” a film about a homeless fruit vendor in Brazil that’s produced by Greenwald -- they will go live, in sequence, during the same week.
Some big names will be involved with the effort. Michael Moore has agreed to make a film for Field of Vision, as has “House of Cards” creator Beau Willimon. Poitras said she also is in talks with Paul Greengrass, whose background lies in documentary. (He once worked for the activist TV journalism program World in Action.)
But many of the pieces will come from voices known primarily in the documentary community.
The films shown on Sunday at the festival demonstrate the range of those efforts. Among the standouts are Kirsten Johnson’s “The Above” about surveillance blimps in Afghanistan and the U.S. that contrasts meditatively with more benign sky-grazing objects such as balloons and a theme-park ride; “Peace in the Valley,” Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s look at the entanglements of gay-rights advocates and evangelical Christians in an Arkansas resort town; and Iva Radivojevic’s “Notes From the Border,” a fly-on-the-wall piece about Syrian refugees bound for Greece shot just a few weeks ago.
The idea is to create a new place for consumers to view nonfiction films, but also to play with the form itself. By offering movies that are shorter and timelier than the traditional look-back documentary, Field of Vision hopes in some case to offer takes on the news. (Cook notably refers to the pieces going online not as being released but “published.”)
In so doing, Field of Vision further blurs a line between journalism and documentary that, with docs moving faster and newspapers and other outlets getting into video, is already murky.
“It’s definitely a messy area,” said Schnack, previously the founder of the Cinema Eye documentary prizes and director of a nonfiction film about Kurt Cobain. “We want to play in the corner where journalism and documentary overlap, but I still think we’re documentary.”
Cook, who ran the Canadian nonfiction film festival Hot Docs before coming to Field of Vision, said that she sees an emphasis on aesthetic concerns as a distinguishing factor.
“We want to put a focus on an event that’s different, and to do so with a cinematic point of view,” she said.
For their part, filmmakers say the platform gives them a chance to inject ideas into debates that are still taking place, or even make use of previously shot material. Johnson’s “The Above,” for instance, was carved out of another film she had been working on. “If you have access to the footage, it can be very liberating to see what can be unleashed in this way,” she said.
Filmmakers said they welcome a place to go public with their work without jumping through the hoops of traditional players, who often require them to wait months or even years for their material to be seen.
“With issues always developing and creative people always needing to create, a platform like this is brilliant because it keeps giving you momentum,” said Radivojevic, director of “Notes From the Border.”
Field of Vision principals said they believe this goal is evidence of a larger shift, one that erodes both the pace and place for documentary.
“I don’t think the old rules that ‘I’m going to hold off on all the footage until it premieres in Park City’ applies anymore,” Schnack said, referencing the Sundance Film Festival’s home in Utah. “Park City is great. But it’s not the only place anymore.”
Though principals say there is no political agenda, Field of Vision will follow the Intercept’s mandate of “adversarial journalism,” and in the interview Poitras spoke of a watchdog mission. Perceived government overreaches as well as global injustice seems to be a concern of both entities. Field of Vision also will experiment with episodic nonfiction storytelling, a form that has proved viable with the popularity of programs such as the “This American Life” spinoff “Serial” and HBO’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”
But the consumer landscape is tricky. Documentary has undoubtedly become a more popular creative venue, as citizen journalists and burgeoning pros up their efforts. Whether a large enough public appetite exists, however, is another matter.
Field of Vision must compete with established players that have a viewership base and additional revenue streams, as well as online-video aggregators like YouTube and Vimeo. And it must do so with little consumer awareness.
“I think A.J. and Charlotte really understand not just filmmaking but community-building,” Poitras said. “When we have content that’s innovative, it will find its way to the people who are passionate about it.”
Cook pointed to Poitras’ own work, which was given a boost when video she released of Snowden as a short went viral in 2013, indirectly creating awareness for her and her eventual film. Similar pieces, from Poitras and others, might live on Field of Vision in the future and help draw eyeballs.
Among the work being shown Sunday night are excerpts of “Asylum,” Poitras’ new piece about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange that she began shooting before her Snowden pic. Three of 13 planned segments will be screened Sunday; in one, Assange can be seen in a hotel room fixing up a disguise before he goes on the run, much in the manner of Snowden in “Citizenfour.”
“There was a little bit of ‘How do I find myself in another hotel room?’” she said of making both the Snowden and Assange movies. She takes the view that the WikiLeaks founder, a highly polarizing subject because of his willingness to reveal classified information, is a worthy subject and citizen.
“Julian has changed how we see journalism. He’s exposed war crimes. And he’s done it with enormous adversaries. For me that’s a story that’s really compelling.” (It is not yet clear if “Asylum” will be made available on Field of Vision or will take a more traditional distribution route.)
It has been a whirlwind period for Poitras. The filmmaker has moved back to New York from Berlin, where she made “Citizenfour” while fearing government reprisal, and she has even worked on an upcoming installation at the Whitney Museum of American Art as she cuts the Assange film and runs Field of Vision.
She sees in the latter a broad and topical mission. “Nonfiction films can tell stories that are expansive but also rigorous,” she said.
“We want to respond to news events,” she added, “but not in the typical media scrum.”
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