Films on the web: Power to the people

A new website allows anyone to show a short film. Now we can all have our four minutes of fame, says Jimmy Lee Shreeve

"These documentaries can be on any subject, so long as it adheres to the specified legal guidelines," explains Peter Dale, head of More4 - Channel 4's new public-service digital channel - who conceived the project. "The only other stipulation is that uploaded documentaries be no more than four minutes long. This short format was chosen partly because it is a challenge for both new and experienced documentary film-makers, and also because four minutes is currently the level of attention span most people have when viewing on the internet."

According to Dale, one of the key benefits of FourDocs is that it provides valuable feedback for film-makers keen to develop their skills. "All submitted documentaries can be rated and reviewed by other users or by the general public, with the most popular films promoted to the front page - like a documentary hit parade," he says.

Among the films uploaded so far are: Yeovil's First Lady, made by Venita Kidza as part of her course at Bournemouth Media School, an insightful film focusing on a bouncer during her first night working at a wine bar; Third Ball Attack by James Turnham, an hilarious piece covering the Gresse Street Table Tennis Club, the worst team in their league; and the atmospheric Squatters, by Colette Crespin, which interviews residents at Gallery 491, a community arts project in Leytonstone.

The FourDocs website also offers archives of celebrated documentaries, interviews with film-makers and a repository of copyright-cleared footage which can be incorporated into films. Another one of the brains behind the project, award-winning documentary maker Patrick Uden, says the package is geared to spur people into making films on subjects they feel strongly about. He says: "FourDocs is the first time that anyone has given both practical support and a high-level platform for people to make and display their own personal documentaries - no matter what their experience."

The website provides a range of how-to videos, detailing everything from using digital video cameras and setting up camera shots and angles to tips on writing, editing and directing. For Dale, these video tutorials, along with the community sections of the website, provide a much-needed training ground for the would-be documentary maker.

"Unlike when I started out, film-making equipment is now easily accessible, very cheap and of high quality, which opens up the field to anyone," he says. "That's great. But what you're missing out on is the community of film-making I grew up with, where you were able to share your work with your peers and get it critiqued. There just isn't the same level of training and support in television today that there was through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. So that's part of the vision behind FourDocs - to provide a sense of community and give expert advice using the new medium of broadband internet."

FourDocs comes amid the dramatic rise in amateur film-making on digital cameras and mobile phones. And the new channel is attracting "citizen journalists" who want to cover stories that don't appear in the conventional media. For example, one prominent blogger and amateur film-maker from Canada, known as "Dirt Worshipper", said he is considering making a four-minute short about the death of the writer Hunter S Thompson, who some say didn't commit suicide but was murdered because he was working on an exposé about the World Trade Centre attacks.

While documentaries with a political slant are likely to be common, FourDocs is hoping to get a wider range of material as the channel develops. "We'd like to see some natural-history films, not just political stuff," says Anthony Lilley of Magic Lantern Productions, the company that built the website and filmed the training videos. "For example, I saw a brilliant film recently about a woman who has a fox in her garden and the impact it has had on her life, how it raids her bins and digs holes in her garden, but is still an inspiring part of nature to have around. That's what FourDocs is all about - people showcasing their world."

Lilley would also welcome famous people documenting their lives. "I'd like to know what David Beckham is like. It would be fascinating to see how such people would present themselves without the benefit of PR spin," he says. But he is keen to stress that FourDocs is primarily about everyday people telling their stories. "It's about commenting on your world. It could be anything. It could be a film about your new baby and how it is affecting your life."

But four minutes is not a lot of time. Even the veteran fly-on-the-wall documentary maker Paul Watson, who is interviewed on the FourDocs site, was flummoxed when asked how he would make a four-minute film. "The problem is that the beginning is too close to the end," he said. "There's no time to establish anything. You've got to get straight into the story."

But Dirt Worshipper has no such worries: "People who are already operating on the web, like bloggers and podcasters, are skilled at getting things across quickly and succinctly. Four minutes would be a cinch."

www.channel4.com/fourdocs/

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