Can a Five-Minute Film Change the World?

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photo courtesy of AMC Networks/SundanceNow Doc Club.

In 2015, Josh Sapan, President and CEO of AMC Networks, wanted to make a difference.  After attending an AMC-sponsored panel on short-form documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival that year, he realized he had found a way to do just that.

“The op-ed piece of today and tomorrow will not be a printed piece of newspaper, but five-minute films made by filmmakers who are given the freedom of their own voice,” Saban said at a recent panel for the launch of “Take 5: Justice in America ,” a new original series from SundanceNow Doc Club, AMC’s streaming video-on-demand channel, which airs today.

Using the power of short-form documentary, “Take 5” tackles five of today’s most pertinent and thought-provoking issues in separate five 5-minute videos.  Sapan believes print media just can’t capture the issues with the same effect.

“Take 5” producer Joyce Deep agrees.

“The digital revolution [has allowed] filmmakers to experiment with new formats like ultra-short films,”  Deep told The Crime Report, adding that although the format can be challenging, there have already been notable successes.

The pioneer of this form of digital storytelling may be documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose advocacy of  the merits of short-form video  at the AMC panel at Sundance in 2015 inspired Sapan to develop “Take 5.”

Jarecki had recently produced a short entitled “Move Your Money,” which urged its audience to move their money from the large, federally supported banks bailed out in 2009, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, to smaller community establishments. Taking only a few days to make, the video’s short run time allowed it to go viral and sparked a movement in cities across the country.

With their premiere collection, Deep and Sapan are hoping to inspire a similar response. In developing the project they reached out to roughly 90 filmmakers and received 50 proposals.

“We asked the filmmakers to interpret and film what [justice in America] meant to them.” said Sapan.

“I think the results are pretty spectacular.”

In each film, the director addresses one of five provocative topics:  voting rights, gun control, the working poor, bail reform, and gentrification.

“One of the reasons [for these films] is to start a conversation,” said Deep, who points out that whether for or against, most people are not talking about the issues and don’t even sit at the same table.

Both  Deep and Sapan said  that they wanted to be as balanced as possible by allowing multiple voices  to be heard.  In the film covering pretrial detention, for example, director Razan Ghalayani interviewed county prisoner director M.R. Merican.

The Crime Report interview with Ghalayini was published last week.

“We’re not just preaching to the converted,” said Sapan who, along with Deep, feels that all sides of the political spectrum share an interest in resolving the issues addressed in the film.

The versatility of short-form documentaries makes it possible to bridge ideological differences in ways that print media can’t.

“People see themselves in the visual medium a lot more than they do in print,” said Deep. “The energy of seeing truth in real-time  on the screen really moves people in a way that they can’t dispute.”

Longer documentaries and “Reality Crime” programs have already  begun to transform the media landscape.

In 2013, the investigative film “The Invisible War,” directed and produced by Kirby Dick, prompted a congressional hearing on the subject of rape in the armed forces. and the establishment of a Special Victims Unit at each military branch.

In 2015, Mark Smerling and Andrew Jarecki produced and directed “The Jinx,” a documentary mini-series about the notorious murder controversy surrounding wealthy New York real estate scion Robert Durst, that eventually contributed to his arrest and confession.

And last winter’s release on Netflix of the “Making a Murderer” documentary, whose ten episodes were followed by millions, led to a national protest campaign against the rural Wisconsin sheriff’s department featured in the film over allegations that officers there had framed an innocent man for murder.

Documentary film has become an effective tool for expanding public debate on criminal justice.

“We’re using it to speak truth to power,” said Deep.  “The visual medium spurs people to want to know more.  To pursue the issue.  I think that’s where the real power is in these short films.”

However, that power depends on the help of others, and Deep is quick to add that “Take 5” is working closely with a long list of nonprofits such as Campaign for America’s Future, Voto Latino, Rock the Vote, and the Free Trial Justice Institute in an effort to provide as many free platforms for the public to access these films as possible.

As traditional media companies fight for survival, nonprofits like these have become the new platform for investigative journalism. By collaborating with “legacy” and nontraditional news sources like “Take 5”, they are promoting the kinds of individual films that inform on their work in an engaging and straightforward way.

“That’s the beauty of five minute films,” said Deep.  “[Nonprofits] can use it to bring people up the learning curve on the issue.  They can use it to get people on board to help push the issue.  They can use it with elected official to help succinctly lay out the case.”

“Documentarians are savvy storytellers,” Deep added. “They have become the investigative journalists of the 21st Century, [and] they play an enormous role in provoking thought, forcing issues into the national public debate, and getting the truth out.”

Isidoro Rodriguez is a journalism staff intern at The Crime Report.  He welcomes comments from readers.

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