Dossier: Documentary Untethered, Documentary Becoming

[Ed. note: This “Dossier on Collaborative Documentary Practice: Histories, Theories, Practices” will be posted on Afterimage Online in the following parts:

Another Way of Being: Hidden Histories of Collaborative Documentary Practices
Documentary Untethered, Documentary Becoming
Toward a Theory of Participatory New Media Documentary
Speculations and Inquiries on New Participatory Documentary Environments]

Film still from The New Buchanan Mall, San Francisco (2016) photograph by Sophie Constantinou; courtesy Citizen Film

Film still from The New Buchanan Mall, San Francisco (2016) photograph by Sophie Constantinou; courtesy Citizen Film

Documentary Untethered, Documentary Becoming

By Helen De Michiel

Last year when I screened my episodic documentary Lunch Love Community (2015) for an audience of environmental journalists at the University of Colorado-Boulder, I presented the project from the perspective of our (Patricia Zimmermann’s and my) evolving ideas of Open Space Documentary 1. A transmedia documentary project that includes a mosaic of twelve short documentary films at its center, Lunch Love Community explores how the citizens of Berkeley radically overhauled and redefined public school meals and food education in the early 2000s.

In those first years of broadband around 2009, new openings for nonfiction media exploded. From 2010 to 2014, Lunch Love Community grew and changed, both online and through its deep involvement with community-based events. We experimented with the short documentary form made for the internet, and circulated the shorts online. We screened them in town hall–meets–theater live events around the country. And now, several years later, they are in traditional film distribution with the environmental film company Bullfrog Films.

“How did this project impact you?,” a writer asked me during the discussion following the screening and talk. Her question startled me. I improvised something about stretching beyond where I imagined the project could take us. I couldn’t offer anything particularly revealing about my own creative process. In a web of co-creative relationships informing Lunch Love Community, what had I discovered for myself as an artist, producer, and collaborative partner?

I call this work combinatory storytelling—always focused outward, beyond what I felt I knew. The creative and social research for Lunch Love Community was nerve-wracking in a way that I had never before experienced. We were working with emerging digital forms. We soldered them together, inspired and strengthened by our research into the hidden histories of participatory media practice. I wanted the work to respond to social relationships differently from media products in a consumer marketplace where communities and individuals are subjected to the intrusive gaze of the filmmaker and audience.

Yet. The journalist’s question grabbed me.

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions

What if I could take her to the dining hall at McGee Avenue Baptist Church in West Berkeley on a pleasant spring evening? Forty people were enjoying supper in one of our Lunch Love Community “Media Socials” that we were organizing locally and across the country. After showing one of the episodes from Lunch Love Community titled The Parent Factor, I invited one of the evening’s speakers, activist Armando Nieto, to open the discussion by sharing his thoughts on family, food traditions, and cultural identity. People had their own stories, questions, and concerns—family diabetes, cooking skills, teenage hunger, obesity.

Throughout this intimate event, we were able to make important connections along a continuum from personal well-being to community health in ways that people had not considered before, and which excited them to engage in the conversation. As the evening concluded, Dr. Vicki Alexander announced the upcoming Berkeley ballot measure to tax sugar-sweetened drinks. Because Alexander was a trusted member of the African American community, by the end of the event, people in the room were more open to listening to her case that the pending soda tax would offer local policy protections for public health and children’s nutrition goals.

When we talk about food, we unpack other issues and other needs. When we offer food, people open up their hearts to share a flash of insight because they feel respected and recognized. This documentary experience invited the audience to consider a different way of life and healing through the stories we tell ourselves, and especially for how they can inspire the will to act and change.

This is documentary enmeshed in the texture of living social encounters. Digital disruptions, tools, and flows have untethered the documentary work we make: this is socially impactful storytelling that persists in a continual state of becoming and evolving. Rather than extracting stories, images, and ideas from individuals and places, this approach to documentary practice folds our media artifacts into the public commons to be used when and where there is need and desire.

The art of nonfiction film is embedded in channels, flows, and relays. It is a continuum of participation and collective exchange—across teams, with partners, and with spectators on devices and screens they control. Participatory documentary is an intentional process. It gives more to the public commons than it depletes.

With an array of digital tools, spaces, and places at her disposal, the documentary director may now extend her work well beyond the screen. She is a community designer of human-focused, screen-enabled, open-ended encounters. When filmmakers, subjects, and viewers share in this intentional, participatory practice, the knowledge exchanged yields deeply healing experiences that ripple out into the culture at large.

Generative documentary processes support personal agency and identity within the greater social fabric. This perspective means questioning conventional methods and ideas about the cultural role of documentary. It means understanding how a community-based media practice can spark alliances among networks, cooperatives, and organizations.

More than ever, people need to hear their own authentic voices, to be witnessed by others, and to find the will to share their own truths with skill and intention. When we who know the power of art and media-making invite others into our practice as agents, the work is no longer “about,” but “of”—an individual’s heart or a community’s collective willingness to recognize and make change.

A documentary project never really ends. It becomes iterative. Human relationships grow and deepen over the course of a project, and continue. We can circle around, look forward, and look back. We stay connected. We find new uses and meanings for these media artifacts. Our tools and sensibilities allow us the freedom to develop new understandings and uses for the work as it circulates.

Title: Green Streets Documentary Project, Film Director: Sophie Constantinou, Photo Credit: Sophie Constantinou, Courtesy: Citizen Film, c. 2015

Still from Green Streets Documentary Project, by Sophie Constantinou (2015); photograph by Sophie Constantinou; courtesy Citizen Film

In 2010, when Sophie Constantinou met Tyrone Mullins and the other young people starting the urban recycling and composting business Green Streets, she told me 2 that she could she could never have imagined where those first encounters would lead her and her producing group, Citizen Film. They got together to make a short film about the organization and its social mission. Green Streets employs youth to collect recyclables throughout the housing projects that line the Hayes Valley and Western Addition areas of San Francisco.

Citizen Film started small, developing a green streets film project. The crew themselves were the audience for their own movie. They combatted the negative stereotypes that the workers had internalized about themselves. For Constantinou, these young people were heroes who had never received any positive reinforcement. She volunteered to help Green Streets structure their business and offered informal training in management skills. She was there as an intimate witness and to give support when traumatic events struck the workers’ lives.

Over the last six years, Green Streets and Citizen Film—led by Constantinou and Mullins—developed relationships that moved beyond the transactional to the familial and collaborative. Their differences are stark. She is a white documentary filmmaker and organization co-director. The Green Streets members and workers are African Americans who cycle in and out of prison, struggling to stay off the streets and keep the business together. She owns property. They are trapped in urban housing projects with limited mobility and severe employment constraints.

Yet, in resistance to these systemic challenges, together they have created and sustained the Green Streets Documentary Project (2011–ongoing) 3 that Constantinou describes as an evolving work-in- progress. As the collaborators respond to feedback from different stakeholders in different settings, the documentary is updated through continuousiterations over the years.

Over the past six years, the film project itself remained modest. The partners persisted in showing versions of the film as it grew and changed. They screened it around San Francisco and across the country in libraries, community centers, city agencies, and at partner organizations. Constantinou said that after a presentation, people would tell her how important it was to them that neighbors or people who looked and spoke like them were portrayed in the film. Audiences reported to her that they cared about Green Street’s message of hope that felt connected to the ground they walked on every day. Constantinou readjusted her lens. In the wealthiest city in the country, the project was now about having an impact on a few blocks of an embattled and invisible neighborhood.

The Green Streets media project brought out ideas about urban development. It inspired the collaborators to create a new public art and community development project. Since 2015, they have been working to turn a previously trashed five-block strip of public land, surrounded by public housing, into the new Buchanan Mall, a multisensory promenade of sculptural audio domes, photo murals, vegetable planters, and a lighted art walk. For the design process, Green Streets reached out to neighbors in Hayes Valley and Western Addition. Constantinou helped bring new institutional partners into the process—from the Exploratorium and the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department to the Trust for Public Land. The Mall promenade was built and opened in 2015, and together, Citizen Film and Green Streets continue to lead the next design phase this year.

Constantinou told me that the Green Streets film project opened up a pathway to explore new forms of community stewardship in the face of gentrification. She says “I’ve always struggled with the boundaries between me as a filmmaker and my subjects.” Constantinou discovered that by involving herself so deeply with Green Streets as an artist, observer, advisor, and partner, she is caring for her creative self in ways she could never have imagined.

When boundaries break down, true collaboration emerges.

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions

In 2009 when we began creating the Lunch Love Community project as a mosaic of short films to watch, share, and discuss across communities both online and through live media socials, I would never have predicted that the Berkeley Public School nutrition projects we were following would be decimated by 2012. Nor was there any way to know that Lunch Love Community would play a pivotal role in supporting the 2014 Berkeley Soda Tax. The two were intertwined. Facilitating the Media Socials appealed to me, and I experienced how a documentary can function differently over time and shifting social circumstances. My most recent short film, Berkeley vs. Big Soda (2016), grew out of those Media Socials that I organized with churches, community centers, policy groups, and the soda tax coalition. A few days before the 2014 election, we shot observational material during the campaign that succeeded in passing the first soda tax in the United States.

With a little funding left from a donor, the Ecology Center in Berkeley asked me to make a short film about this landmark story. Before structuring the piece, I invited campaign workers and volunteers for a World-Café- inspired “idea-storming wisdom-counsel” session. In this two-hour facilitated process, participants generated ideas for the film’s story and eventual circulation based on their own memories of the campaign experience. People worked individually, in pairs, and in groups.

By the end of the session these ten individuals had quickly summarized complex ideas and insights together. We fine-tuned the language and clustered ideas on cards. We discussed how they would shift the film’s story. People offered ways to spread the word and where to circulate the film across activist channels. Conversations and deliberations filtered every fragment and hunch. No ideas were ignored or lost. They all went up on the board and into the story edit.

Creativity is collective, open-ended dialogue. Since its March 2016 online release, this spirit carried the film. In the first month, there were more than 16,000 views alone through social media. 4 In November 2016, ten new local soda taxes appeared on community ballots across the country. Local organizers continued to fire up their thumb drives for Berkeley vs. Big Soda screenings and conversations with policymakers, advocates, citizen volunteers, and public health officials.

Even though our work as documentary makers is now cut loose from the ruling paradigms of production and distribution that developed throughout the media industry in the twentieth century, I don’t want to suggest that filmmakers turn away from long-form documentary, cast off standard presentation and distribution practices, or ignore the demands of funders’ agendas. Nevertheless, we now have the capability to discover new creative energy and connectivity in spaces far and wide beyond the constraints of the commercial theater or broadcast channel. Commercial metrics and impact analyses are blunt tools for these new pathways for documentary practice.

Yet, a larger question looms: with continuously disruptive and challenging external forces at play, and so often beyond anyone’s control, how will we work in this field of continual becoming in an untethered media environment?

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions

Intentionally including communities, partners, and citizen participants in a process of discovery and co-creation expands our impact. By staying open to the context of where we are, what we are assuming, and who we are with, we can avoid and move in a different direction away from the exploitation inherent in traditional documentary practice; the participatory documentary gives much more to the public commons than it takes from individuals and communities.

In the larger media world, documentary is weaponized. In contrast, sharing knowledge and insight through new combinations of cinematic nonfiction heals the individuals involved, from makers to subjects and viewers. It strengthens a community’s culture and identity. The promise and revelation of twenty-first- century documentary media resides in the commons, and with participatory documentary, we move from a film “about”into a commons “for.”

We are redesigning documentary practices as a portal to connect people and communities and gather people together to share thoughts and feelings, grievances and solutions that may have no other forms of expression. In this abundant, fractured, distracted, and buzzing media environment, what greater impact can I ask for a participatory documentary practice?

I have a deep need for collaboration and community. In my experience as a media artist, when boundaries break down, true collaboration emerges. Through these projects, I realized that I am shaping a continual process of remembering and recognizing, witnessing and discerning, integrating and renewing. I call this engagement an act of service, an act of love, an act of art and—an act of politics.

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions

Still from Lunch Love Community (2015) by Helen De Michiel; courtesy Thirty Leaves Productions


HELEN DE MICHIEL is a filmmaker, author, and community engagement designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose new book Open Space New Media Documentary, co-authored with Patricia Zimmermann, is forthcoming. For more about Lunch Love Community visit www.lunchlovecommunity and watch Berkeley Vs. Big Soda on YouTube.

NOTES 1. See Open Space New Media Documentary: A Toolkit for Theory and Practice, co-authored with Patricia Zimmermann, forthcoming from Routledge in Fall 2017. 2. Telephone interview with Sophie Constantinou, San Francisco and Berkeley, June 24, 2016. 3. See doc or the-documentary. 4. From the Berkeley vs. Big Soda Facebook page, March 28, 2016,

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Film as Verb: Documentary Imperfection in the Post-Factual Era by Gabrielle McNally

Speculations and Inquiries on New Participatory Documentary Environments

Toward a Theory of Participatory New Media Documentary

Documentary Untethered, Documentary Becoming

Collaborative Documentary Practice: Histories, Theories, Practices


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