Are you a filmmaker or a journalist? If the script you’re working on is titled Zombie Princesses vs. Sharkzilla, this is probably not an issue. But if you are using your filmmaking skills to document the reality of social issues such as unjust imprisonment or the AIDS epidemic, you’d better put on your journalist hat and get lawyered up. The people you offend by telling the truth will be sending you subpoenas.
This issue was illuminated at the January meeting of Documentary University (DocU), the International Documentary Association's series of educational seminars and workshops for aspiring and experienced documentary filmmakers. Taught by artists and industry experts, participants receive vital training and insights on topics including: fundraising, distribution, licensing, marketing, and business tactics. The session, “Navigating the Intersection of Documentary and Journalism”, was held at the Cinefamily Theater (formerly the Silent Movie Theatre) in Los Angeles.
Karin Stellwagen (instructor at The Brooks Institute) moderated the discussion on the intricate balance between video journalism and documentary filmmaking. Participants included John David France (How To Survive A Plague), Sarah Burns (The Central Park Five), Michael Donaldson (Partner, Donaldson & Callif). Both France’ and Burns’ films have been nominated for Film Independent’s Independent Spirit Awards in the Best Documentary category. The awards will be presented at a ceremony on February 23.
Stellwagen initiated the discussion by asking, “What are the squishy issues where documentary and journalism intersect? What do we need to do, as filmmakers, to prepare ourselves?”
Attorney Michael Donaldson was first to reply. Donaldson, whom I’m convinced is perhaps the only inspirational lawyer outside of To Kill a Mockingbird, is an entertainment attorney who has been fighting for independent filmmakers for more than 30 years. He is responsible for many agreements and pieces of legislation that have protected and extended the rights of documentary filmmakers. He wrote Clearance & Copyright, a standard text in film schools and winner of three national book awards. He also co-authored The American Bar Associations’ Legal Guide to Independent Filmmaking and serves as General Counsel to Film Independent (home of the Independent Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival) and the Writers Guild Foundation.