Whose tube is it anyway? Oh well, let's just enjoy the movies
Documentaries made from footage found on YouTube are becoming more and more common
The tradition of using archive footage in documentary is well established from the archive-rich documentaries of American historical chronicler Ken Burns to the almost-entirely-made-up-of-archive self-narrated political polemics of British documentarian Adam Curtis. But in the age of smartphones and YouTube, filmmakers are beginning to mine self-generated, publicly available footage as a source for a new type of archive that’s beginning to create a new kind of film, often made up entirely of clips used freely from the Internet rather than material sourced at great cost from traditional archives.
In 2015, French Canadian director Dominic Gagnon caused a stir when he made a film about the Inuit without ever visiting their native Arctic or interviewing any members of the group, but rather by collating a selection of clips found on YouTube and pornography sites for a 74-minute documentary called Of the North. Gagnon intercut his clips, which mainly depicted the Inuit as drunk and violent, with scenes of industrial machinery and development, all set to the sounds of traditional Inuit throat-singing. At the time the film was criticised by many for its racism and for the fact that its director had not secured the rights to use the online footage.Since then the debate has raged in copyright circles about whether the fact that videos are made publicly available on YouTube, and have to pass the site's strict copyright algorithms in order to be uploaded, means that anyone can use them for whatever they like. Until that’s decided, however, there are several recent documentaries that use YouTube and other freely available online user-generated content as the entire basis for their narratives. Ironically, very few of these films are available as freely online as the footage they utilise.
In 2016 documentary director Dean Fleisher-Camp created his film festival hit Fraud by taking hundreds of hours of one ordinary American families’ home movies and editing selections together to create a fictional crime narrative. Fleischer-Camp was both lauded and criticised for his cheeky fiddling of the truth of video that didn’t belong to him and for which he’d received no consent to use from the family. Since then he’s gotten the family on board and his film is set for a wide digital release later this month.A Self-Induced Hallucination is a documentary by Dan Schoenbrun, which is available on YouTube and tells the story of the Internet bogeyman phenomenon, Slenderman. The myth of the tall, shadowy, multi-armed slasher started as an Internet meme and was then fed by hundreds of videos from YouTube users, which helped to catapult the fictional character into the public consciousness to the point where two 12-year-old boys eventually stabbed a 12-year-old girl in Wisconsin as a sacrifice to Slenderman in 2014. Schoenbrun’s documentary is not an examination of the attempted murder but rather of the phenomenon of the Slenderman myth, using only videos from YouTube and vlogs.Established archive documentarian Penny Lane also explores an Internet phenomenon for her “found footage film about the limits of empathy”, The Pain of Others. The film will be released on online platforms later this year and it examines the Morgies, a group of YouTube testifiers who claim to suffer from a mysterious disease called Morgellons, whose symptoms include rashes, crawling skin sensations and the appearance of long strands on their bodies.Russian filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin has made a 12 minute promo of his film Our New President, available on YouTube. It’s a political film about the 2016 US election as told through the lens of Russian state television and user-generated videos in which Russians of all ages pay tribute to Trump. Like Schoenbrun’s film, Pozdorovkin’s eschews any narration and tells its story through the editing together of the material. No word yet on when Pozdorovkin’s full length version will be released but you can be sure that Donald waits in eager anticipation.It remains to be seen what the future will hold for these kinds of found-footage films and how they will be released – after all if you use YouTube as your source then surely you should be obligated to show your film freely on the platform for others to use one day for whatever purpose they see fit and so ensure that the vicious circle of exhibition and appropriation can happily continue to infinity and beyond.