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What is an “open source documentary”?

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I have signed up to collaborate to Preempting Dissent (‘s latest collaborative documentary)… For this you need to log in and create your profile, which I did.

The project is a collaboration between researchers and filmmakers at the Infoscape Research Lab at Ryerson University and the Department of Communication, Florida State University.

So far only 10 people are participating – of which three are the initators of the project: Brett Gaylor (the initiator of the Open Source Cinema project & website) plus Andy Opel and Greg Elmer (the co-author of the book Preempting Dissent, who is also an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Florida State University, and who I suspect is the initiator of this specific Open Source project). To be frank at the moment there is not very much going on…

Of course I could have started uploading videos on surveillance cameras (the topic of the project) – which I will do soon- but since this was my first visit to the website I was mainly trying to understand how does the whole project work. Since the project itself is quite empty for now I turned to a project that is nearly finished, and that should work with the same Open Source Cinema logic, RIP: a remix manifesto.

I had seen video clips of  RIP in the past, since the documentary is divided in chapters that are downloadable from the web, but this time I was really trying to understand the process of user’s collaboration… how can I participate… and interestingly enough a lot of questions have risen.

How does Open Source Cinema projects’ work?

– you go to

– you fill in a profile and log in

– you then choose and join one or several    projects

– once you have selected a project you can upload your content and start remixing

…but then?

I suppose you upload your remixed video

… but where are the remixes that others have uploaded? I could not find them on the RIP screen? This is the screen you get: an invitation to remix plus a blog of people’s comments on the project… but where are the remixes?

The idea of Open Source Cinema is to do to films what Wikipedia has done to encyclopaedias.  In his website Brett Gaylor, the creator of the site, writes “think of remixes as “wiki-films” – they’re produced through continual revision and collaboration” (

But is it really the case? When I add content to a wiki article I can see the layers of participations of other people (by clicking onto the “history” tag) and I work on an open canvas that stays open forever (in the sense that at any moment anybody can change/ add to what I have written). Can I do this in RIP: an open source manifesto?

The way RIP is organised is that it is already edited in chapters, and each chapter has a specific call to participate. If you view a chapter you will see that at the end of it Brett asks people to collaborate on precise tasks (add music mixes on the film trailer, checking if something is missing in chapter 3, add to the voice over of chapter 7 etc…)… so in a way the collaboration is “directed” by Brett – contrary to Wikipedia where you are your own judge on how you want to collaborate.

Once you have decided to add something to the chapter I suspect you upload it, but I am not clear about the following step: do you remix and upload it for everyone else to add on to, or do you send it to Brett – and then he decides if it is a good addition, so that he stays in control of the paste and narrative arch of the film?

This again is an important point if we want to compare it to Wikipedia, since the editorial role is collaborative in it, while it is not clear in Open Source Cinema. If the remix culture is all against copyright and ownership… how transparent is the relation between web collaborators and Brett?

The last point that is unclear to me is the lifespan of the project. A Wikipedia entry is potentially always open to changes. Its life is on the web and, until people will feel interested on it, it will keep breathing. What is the final form of an Open Source Cinema documentary? The version that is on the web is potentially always open, but Brett does show the documentary at festivals… and I suppose he keep choosing “temporarily finished versions”, each of which, though, is presented as a “normal” documentary to its audience – a film that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

If I am right, this would mean that an Open Source Cinema documentary has different bodies: a fluctuating one, that lives on the web, and takes the shape of the last remix uploaded by Brett (or by the web remixers? I am not clear on this) – and a “finished” one, that takes the shape of the last acceptable remix (acceptable for whom? Once again, is it Brett that decides which version he presents to film festivals?).

Since I do not have the answers to those questions I will, as always in my blog, turn them to the people that are might have the answers: Brett Gaylor, Greg Elmer  and Andy Opel.

Their answer is important because I think that the term Open Source documentary is starting to spread, and therefore there is a need now to be clear about its meaning. For wikipedia “Open source is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software, offering practical accessibility to a software’s source code.” but, when applied to media and video content, “Open Source Filmmaking refers to a form of filmmaking that takes a method of idea formation from open source software, but in this case the ‘source’ for a film maker is raw unedited footage rather than programming code. It can also refer to a method of filmmaking where the process of creation is ‘open’ i.e. a disparate group of contributors, at different times contribute to the final piece.”

Which are the possible logics of production and ownership behind Open Source documentaries? Now that the BBC is flagging that they are also creating an Open Source film (obviously not via, but in their own website and with their own rules – see my blog about BBC’s Digital Revolution and BBC’s answer to my questions!) it becomes essential to understand how far an open source logic can go once applied to video footage.

Can a documentary retain narrative interest if completely open sourced? What is the border, the limit, between author and participators in an open sourced film? Is an open sourced documentary really equally “owned” by its participators? And finally… how “open” can an open source documentary be?

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009


  1. On September 30th, 2009 at 12:41 Greg Elmer wrote:

    Many, many interesting comments here. Let me see if I can contribute to this discussion. As noted above, I am one of the collaborators on the “Preempting dissent” collaborative/open source video project. The goal of the project is to study the feasibility of making a video drawing upon expertise, comments, and content provided by users across the internet. That said, of course another key goal is to then assemble a documentary that could contribute to debates concerning public policy, security, and freedom of expression, protest, and of course dissent. While Bush was very much defined by the preemptive doctrine we still continue to see its many faces at work in official government policy and in the ever-expanding use of so-called “less lethal” fire arms — Tasers being the most obvious example. The process of soliciting participation in this collaborative video making project is a difficult, complex, and challenging one. We identified some online communities, and have actively sought to communicate our goals to said communities. We are also in the process of directly contacting individuals who have posted interested videos, images, and other contributions to sites such as Youtube or individual blogs. And lastly, in the more conventional sense, we are now beginning to formally interview key individuals who have contributed to ongoing debates in this area (Amnesty international, those who have experienced repressive measures from police and security officials, etc). In the next few months we will be posting more of our own content — in the hopes that this will spur others to use our clips in their own work, remix our interviews, and contribute their own original materials. The idea of how one “crowd sources” though is not a new one, it is really a question of promotion, or cross promotion (or hyper-promotion!). And of course the more compelling material we find, post, share, and remix, then hopefully the more visits will come to the open source cinema site. Ultimately we hope this will provide enough material to contribute to a compelling documentary while also populating the open source video archive at OSC. Please come visit and see for yourselves —

    -all the best, Greg Elmer

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